Some people think the key to being successful is to just work hard and be “productive.”
But the true secret to excelling at your job isn’t working harder, it’s learning how to be resilient at work.
It doesn’t matter how many more projects you take on or hours you put in if, in the end, you’re a nervous wreck because you let stress and worry get the best of you.
Striking that balance between being ultra-productive and still looking out for yourself is a challenge. Building resilience at work may be the most important thing you do for your long-term career success and personal happiness.
Here are 17 tips you can use today to become more resilient at work, crush stress, and become even more productive:
Bonus: Download the Free Checklist of All 17 Resilience Techniques
1. Reframe Obstacles to Neutralize Potentially Crippling Thought Patterns
As much as you’d like to blame your work stress on external things like your workload, your lazy co-workers, your unreasonable boss or your demanding clients, you have only one person to blame: you.
As Shakespeare famously said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
The real culprit is how you react to work and stress and challenges.
It might sound obvious, but it’s more insidious than you realize: even if you’re “keeping your chin up” and “staying positive,” the way you describe things to yourself may make work more difficult than it needs to be.
It all comes down to your “inner-narrative.” The stories you tell yourself about what’s going on. How you describe situations, even something as small as a word choice.
According to Martin Seligman, a psychologist who was dubbed the “father of positive thinking,” one key difference between people who are resilient and those who aren’t, is their “explanatory style.” In studies, resilient people more often described difficult times as a challenge rather than an unwinnable battle, or a sign of their inner weaknesses.
Explanatory style can be broken into 3 components:
Personal (internal vs. external)–Whether you internalize events or not. Example: “I’m terrible at backgammon” vs. “Backgammon sure is a tough game.”
Permanent (stable vs. unstable)–Whether you see causes as permanent or temporary. Example: “Work is always so stressful” vs. “Work is very stressful right now.”
Pervasive (global vs. local/specific)–To what degree you see an event affecting the rest of your life. Example: “I’m a complete failure at life.” vs. “I get that promotion I wanted.”
Part of this is your “inner voice”—that nagging little guy inside your head who’s always yammering on and telling you to fear the worst. But the other part is how you describe situations to people around you.
When someone asks how things are going at work, you might say: “Ugh, I’m just barely keeping my head above water. My workload is ridiculous, and I’m so bad at managing my time, my life is just out of control.”
A more resilient person might say: “Things are pretty challenging right now, there are tons of projects going on. But I’m doing my best to prioritize each day until we get through this temporary push.”
- Take a hard look at your own explanatory style: is it helping you or hindering you?
- Make an effort to shift your inner (and outer) narrative to be more positive and forgiving
- Stop blaming yourself for setbacks, and start looking at them as the temporary and isolated events that they are
2. Leverage Mindfulness to Tap Into Your Optimal Performance Conditions
Some people think that the way to get through tough times is to disconnect—become less sensitive to their thoughts, to their bodies…basically “IGNORE THE PAIN and keep pushing forward.”
In the end, that’s as foolish as driving your car around and never looking at the gas gauge or the oil levels. If you aren’t paying attention to the signs that your body, mind, and emotions are sending, you’re in for trouble.
By cultivating mindfulness, you can begin to understand how to get the most out of yourself at work:
- Recognizing your moods—realizing that things aren’t as bad as they look, maybe you’re just feeling low at the moment
- Watching your stress and energy levels—understanding that when you’re stressed, you are physically operating at sub-optimal conditions and possibly on an unsustainable course
- Listening to your emotions—taking a moment to listen to that inner voice. What is your gut telling you and why? Is it something deeper you need to address with yourself or someone else? As Tony Robbins reminds us in Awaken the Giant Within, emotions don’t come from nowhere; they come from you, and they are “action signals” to let you know there’s something you need to deal with.
If you can be more mindful of all these things, you can start to redirect your actions towards conditions where you experience “peak performance.”
- Become more aware of your moods and energy levels, and how that might be coloring your perception
- Learn to be honest with yourself about what motivates you and de-motivates you at work
- Recognize what activities give you energy vs. take away energy. For me, I realized that being around people is a something that gives me tremendous energy—like a positive shot of adrenaline. Now I try to realign my working habits to take advantage of that.
- Recognize what people give you energy vs. take away energy. Some people leave you feeling better after you talk to them, others consistently drop a big steaming pile of negativity on your day. Learn to isolate the latter group, and minimize your time and focus on them.
3. Build the Invaluable Habit of Taking Decisive Action
One of the biggest causes of work stress is fear.
You may not realize it, but so much of your stress is caused by some sort of fear, whether conscious or unconscious. Fear of making mistakes, fear of embarrassment or ridicule. Fear of being ostracized from your team. Fear of failing.
That last one is the most insidious. And unfortunately, it creates terribly unhealthy situations for us: we worry about the outcome of our projects, we second-guess ourselves, we get overly self-critical in retrospect (“Wow, I think I blew it in that presentation”). In reality, 80% of the time we’re the only ones who care.
But the worst manifestation of fear is when it causes us to hesitate making decisions. We hold off on deciding what to do, what course to take. And it’s natural, because in modern corporate culture, we’re often choosing between options that are equally bad—the choice is rarely obvious. And it comes down choosing the lesser of 2 (or more) evils.
Sure, it’s important to thoughtfully assess your options before making an important decision. You can’t always blindly shoot from the hip.
But notice how often you end up delaying making difficult decisions?
And guess what happens: it compounds your stress. It starts out as a complicated business decision that you have to figure out, then it begins to fester, turning into a complicated business situation that you failed to handle quickly enough. Which makes you second-guess yourself more, making the decision even harder.
As scared as you are of making a decision, delaying or avoiding making a decision becomes a decision in itself. You are deciding, by default, not to decide. And ultimately you’ll have to live with the consequences of that (in)action.
As author and professional speaker Geoffrey James says, “What holds most people back is fear of failure, but if I don’t take action, I’ll fail by default, so what have I got to lose?”
Get the habit of taking decisive action—if you’re worried about making the wrong decision at work and you hesitate too long that can be worse than making the “wrong” decision. Deal with problems head-on.
There are a few tactics that can make it easier to quickly make decisions:
- First, you need to decide to make a decision. The worst thing you can do is recognize that you have a big decision to make, and then put it on your mental back-burner, just simmering away and occasionally taunting you (“Damn, I know I need to give that some thought, but…”).
- Get out of your head. Try to disassociate the problem from your personal or professional situation. This is a business challenge or a strategic challenge. Just because it’s a tough call doesn’t mean you need to mix your mental baggage in with it. This isn’t about you, it’s just something you need to solve.
- Schedule a “deciding session.” It can be by yourself, or you can assemble a mini-task force. And your task force doesn’t always have to be made up of people with direct knowledge of the problem. Sometimes it actually helps to get the perspective of someone who’s completely unfamiliar with the issue.
- Write down the problem. Describe the situation as clearly as you can. Inventor Charles Kettering famously said that “A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.”
- Draw a picture of the problem. Map it out on a white board. Expressing it visually may help you wrap your head around aspects of the problem you couldn’t see otherwise
- Make lists of pros and cons to different approaches.
- Examine the issue from different angles: from your company’s view, from your client or customer’s view, or any other point of view, like PR, for instance.
- Ask yourself, what is the most important thing right now? How does that influence your decision
- Ask for help. If you can’t solve it by yourself or with a task force of your peers, who can you look to for guidance? A mentor, a senior member of your leadership team, etc?
From almost the beginning of my advertising career I had almost complete autonomy and found myself managing multi-million dollar accounts without any supervision. At first, it stressed me out.
But then I had an epiphany: whatever situation I was in, I had to view my job as just “pulling levers.” If one of the levers for “solve it myself” didn’t work, I needed to pull another lever, like “get help from X”, or “ask Y what they think.” Doing this, I was able to separate the issue from concerns about my personal abilities to solve the problem. Unless you are the CEO, it’s not only your right but it’s wise to seek guidance senior folks when you can’t solve a problem. And after all, even CEOs ask for help from outside advisors.
- Learn to recognize when you’re postponing a decision due to fear
- Build the habit of quickly taking decisive action
- Leverage the tips above to become better and more efficient at making decisions
4. See Learning as the Silver Lining to All Experiences
When you go through tough times at work, no matter how bad things get, 99.9% of the time…well, you SURVIVE. As in, you literally don’t die.
And what happens when you don’t die? You usually remember the experience. If you’re smart, you choose to learn from that experience.
Whether you consciously realize it or not, you’ve been learning from your past experiences all along. Now the trick is to begin recognizing the value of learning when you’re in the trenches.
Rather than seeing success or failure as a binary scale, you’ll begin to see that, more often than not, it’s a sliding scale: this went okay, but we could have done better here. We got this right, but this could have been stronger…
As I mentioned above, if you have a less resilient “explanatory style,” you might see every obstacle at work as a test of your fundamental worth or ability—rather than a problem to be figured out.
When you feel less than equipped to tackle the issue immediately, you might begin beating yourself up.
But what if you could start looking every obstacle as learning experience?
Every challenge—especially the really tough ones—bring tremendous opportunities to learn. When you can recognize that, you become infinitely more powerful and effective. Here are some of the ways you can use this to your advantage:
- You get out of your own head and stop focusing on the fallacy of “innate ability”
- You focus more of your energy on understanding the obstacle or problem, which ultimately helps you do a better job solving it
- You become determined to get value out of the situation (by seeing it as an educational opportunity) no matter how tough or unpleasant it is
- First, accept that even “recognized experts” aren’t perfect and are continually learning
- See every opportunity as a learning experience
- Become more disciplined about evaluating your approach after the fact (how did that go? What could I have done differently or better? What did I learn? What do I still have questions about?
5. Take Care of Your “Machine” (It’s the Only One You’ve Got)
It’s amazing how many people literally delay taking care of basic physical needs—like eating, hydrating, exercising, sleeping—just because of their jobs.
I get it. I’ve been there too. But when you step back to think about it it’s crazy, isn’t it?
It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking, “if I can only get past X” then you’ll have more time for working out or for eating better.
The problem is, it never comes. Chaos and heavy workloads are the norm for most people. Most likely, you’re always going to have more to do than you can easily handle at any one time. Is that stressful to think about? Maybe, but as Richard Carlson says in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, you need to recognize that your inbox will always be full. And there’s something actually liberating about realizing that.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint (ok, for most people it’s a sprintathon, but you catch my drift…). So, knowing that, how would you engineer optimal performance for yourself in an ideal world? Would you say, “My plan for peak performance is to stop taking care of my body and stop eating nutritious food or getting enough rest…because THAT is the surefire way to get more done”? Uh…probably not.
I have some news for you: you only have one body. That is the vessel through which you make your impact on this world. The simple truth is that everything you do in life has to originate through your brain and come through your body. So…you know where I’m going with this…if you don’t take care of your body, you short-change EVERYTHING.
Your body is a machine. And what I’ve learned to realize, especially over the last 2 years, is that it’s extremely predictable, and well, fair. For physical well-being, your body just asks for a few basic things: more nutritious food and less junk, sufficient sleep, sufficient water, and exercise.
You only have one body…if you don’t take care of it, you short-change everything.
I can remember days where I’d be at work and I was having a terrible day, I felt like a failure, my clients were being dicks, and I felt like I couldn’t be productive for the life of me.
And then. I’d realize. “Hmmm…somebody needs a nap.” Yeah, just like in kindergarten. I hadn’t gotten enough sleep. Or maybe I had low blood sugar, or I was crashing because I had raided the “snack closet” instead of getting a proper lunch. Or my brain was sluggish because the only exercise I had done in the last 3 months was “12 ounce curls” with a beer.
Your body is a machine. It’s so damn simple. You wouldn’t go on a road trip with your car and completely ignore your fuel guage or your oil levels. “Can’t stop for gas now, I’m making so much PROGRESS!” Insane, right?
The analogy is spot on…But the reason we don’t see it is that with a car, the outcome is more black and white. If we don’t take care of it, don’t put gas in it, it stops going. BOOM. That’s it.
Unfortunately, we humans find ways of “squeaking by.” Do we just stop all of the sudden? No, it’s far worse: we get cranky, insecure, less friendly, indecisive, and overall, dumber.
Do yourself a favor, and take care of your machine. You have to view those basic bodily needs (rest, exercise, nutrition, hydration) the same way you see brushing your teeth. No matter what happens, you usually find a way to brush your teeth—you fit it in. (Because if not, no one would talk to you in the elevator…)
It’s not only important to build those “refueling” aspects into your life proactively. But it’s also important to recognize that certain aspect of your job may take a greater physical toll on you than others. Recent studies have shown that even if you exercise regularly, sitting for long periods of time can shorten your life and be detrimental to your health. As a friend said to me the other day half-jokingly, “Sitting is the new smoking.”
Using a standing desk at work, and taking frequent breaks and moving around can help combat the negative health effects of prolonged sitting. Additionally, Art of Manliness recenlty wrote a great great article on exercises you can do to “Undo the Damage of Sitting.”
- Realize that nothing happens at work without your body. Since you’ve only got one body, take care of it by exercising, eating better, staying hydrated and getting enough sleep
- Stop fooling yourself into thinking you’ll make time to exercise and eat right “once things quiet down at work.” It will never happen. Start now and make health a part of your routine.
- Recognize the danger that long periods of sitting pose, and try to stay more active during the work day
6. Prioritize Your Personal Life to Improve Your Professional Life
You’re neck-deep in a heavy workload, it’s easy to begin neglecting important parts of your life.
As we discussed above, one of the big things that falls to the wayside is taking care of your body and your health.
Another area that can get neglected is keeping up with to do’s in your personal life. All the little things you need to do but never seem to be able to make time for. Things like getting your driver’s license renewed. Taking your clothes to the dry cleaner, calling your mom…
When you’re stressed at work, it’s sometimes easy to justify putting those things off.
But inevitably, when you push them off to the back burner, they come back to haunt you. Even if they haven’t reached “crisis levels” (as in you ran out of underwear after not doing laundry for 4 weeks), they begin to take a mental toll.
In the middle of your stressful workday when you’re beating yourself up about not being able to handle the crazy pace of your job, you suddenly remember: “Oh my god, on top of all THIS, I still haven’t taken my car to the shop—it’s 3 months past due for a tune-up!” And you feel even more stressed and even more like a failure…because now it’s creeping into your personal life as well.
Fortunately, there’s an easy fix to this: even when you’re looking down the barrel of an endless work to-do list, try to prioritize ticking off a few things from the personal to-do list.
You may be scared to do it at first. You almost feel guilty for diverting your focus away from the work chaos (for five minutes while you call your dentist to set up that checkup you’ve put off for 6 months…).
What’s the point in earning your salary if your personal life is falling apart?
But I promise you, it has an immediate “feel-good” effect. First, it gives you the sense of progress on something that IS important (because after all, your personal life IS critical for your well-being). This puts you in a better frame of mind to tackle the seemingly insurmountable stuff at work.
It also helps you maintain perspective: you’re working so that you can HAVE a healthy personal life, live a good life, etc. What’s the point in earning your salary and going through all this if your personal life is falling apart?
And again, your work to-do list is not likely to ever slow down. Your inbox is probably always going to be full. So, you might as well carve out time whenever you can to make sure you attend to those important personal essentials.
This extends beyond simple to-do’s as well. Recognize the deeper things you need to keep your personal life balanced and healthy.
Look for ways to keep renewing yourself outside of work. As Stephen Covey says, find ways to continually “sharpen the saw” and improve and invest in yourself. You can try cultivating hobbies outside of work, sports, mediation, or even just making time for good solid, mindless entertainment if that’s what recharges you.
Even with a crazy schedule, one of the most successful ways to do this is by creating “you time” before work. Whether it’s exercise, a hobby, or meditating, if you set aside the first few hours of your day before work, you’re much more likely to be successful in carving out that time.
So even though it may sound counterintuitive, sometimes prioritizing your personal life—really tending to your personal needs and personal development—can be the best way to increase your resilience and ultimately make you even more successful at your job.
- Have the courage to make time for little personal to do’s throughout the work week (otherwise, they’ll never get done)
- Look for ways to renew yourself outside of work; ultimately it will benefit you at work
- Create “you time” at the beginning of the day to ensure you carve out much-needed time for personal renewal
7. Become an Expert at Hacking Your Unique Work Rhythms
As we’ve already established, you’ve got to “take care of your machine”—your body is the only one you have.
That means not only maintaining it, but also understanding how to get the most out of it.
If you’re not mindful of the way you work best, you might feel like you’re constantly hitting your head against a brick wall.
The truth is, your body is extremely resilient if you take care of it. But that doesn’t mean it’s consistent. It certainly doesn’t mean you can depend on it whenever you want and expect it to be productive at a drop of a hat.
Even when we’re doing all the right things—eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep—our energy levels ebb and flow throughout the day. Sometimes we feel crisp and alert and able to do high-level thinking. Other times—like 1-3PM for me—we feel brain-dead and lethargic doing the simplest of tasks.
Part of developing your resilience at work is learning to work with your body and not against it. To understand how your energy and abilities change throughout the day. By doing this, you can build your work routine around a schedule that will give you the greatest output with the least amount of energy.
Many studies suggest that willpower is a finite thing; it is often greatest in the morning and then grandually tapers off throughout the rest of the day. So you may want to try scheduling activities where you have difficult tasks or hard decisions for first thing in the morning.
As far as creativity goes, anecdotal evidence suggests that many highly creative people are most productive either early in the morning or late at night. If you fall into that camp, you can carve out time for “creating” during those times, reserving the middle of the day for less creative things like administrative tasks, communication, and follow-up, etc.
Beyond aligning your day with your energy levels, you need to get to know your own personal “rhythms” for optimal work.
Studies show that there are great benefits in taking frequent breaks—you don’t just feel better, but you actually produce more by resting periodically. But how much should you break up your day? Only you can figure that out.
Try experimenting with different cycles of work:
There’s the Pomodoro technique, where you work for 25 minutes, then break for 3-5 minutes. Each of those 28-30 minute intervals counts as one “pomodoro,” the Italian word for tomato (named for a tomato-shaped kitchen timer that originally inspired the technique). Then after 4 pomodori you take a longer break, about 15-30 minutes.
Other people, like Tim Ferriss, have experimented with longer intervals, like doing 90 minute “sprints.” I definitely appreciate the longer 90 min to 120 min sprints, because it allows me to be fully immersed in what I’m doing and achieve a sense “flow,” that state where time seems to stop and the activity you’re doing seems effortless. Ultimately, that state of flow can have positive benefits, not only for creativity, but for achieving a renewing effect.
I also have success doing the opposite of that, where I do a series of “5-minute scrums” on several tasks. I find that there’s something freeing in knowing you only have a few moments to do something. Often it takes away the urge to second-guess yourself or try to perfect the task. You may not think you’d accomplish much, but often just by starting a project you have gotten over a major hurdle…and it only took 5 minutes.
As authors Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz note in The Power of Full Engagement, the key to high performance and personal renewal is managing energy, not time. The most effective people are able to oscillate between a state of work and rest in a way that makes them highly productive without zapping their energy.
Loehr and Schwartz point out that those who are most resilient and effective are able to create “rituals” around their work and life: “All great performers have rituals that optimize their ability to move rhythmically between stress and recovery.”
One of the examples they cite is that of tennis great Ivan Lendl. Every time he would step up to serve, he would perform the same mini-ritual: he wiped his brow with his wristband, knocked the head of his racquet against each of his heels, took sawdust from his pocket, bounced the ball four times and visualized where he wanted to hit the ball.
“In the process, Lendl was recalibrating his energy: pushing away distraction, calming his physiology, focusing his attention, triggering reengagement and preparing his body to perform at its best. In effect, he was programming his internal computer. When the point began, the program ran automatically.”
The more often and consistently we do these rituals, the more they become habit. And by virtue of becoming a habit, they act as a kind of “auto-pilot,” helping create the cycle of productivity and renewal without conscious effort or willpower.
- Learn to recognize the times of day when your energy ebbs and flows
- Shift your work to align your energy levels with appropriate tasks
- Experiment with the best intervals to take breaks
- Practice oscillating between stress and renewal, and create rituals to help accelerate your “reboot” each time
8. Prioritize Ruthlessly, Guard Your Time Viciously
If you’re not actively prioritizing your day, then it’s no surprise if you feel like a chicken with your head cut off.
As author and leadership consultant Greg McKeown notes, “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
Most people’s days are a constant, never-ending barrage of demands and requests for action.
It’s not uncommon to spend your entire day going from one unimportant “fire” to the next, or simply “living in your email” without ever doing any real work. If you’re not careful, you can develop fall into the habit of always reacting to the work that’s placed in front of you. When that happens you can find yourself spending an entire month without accomplishing anything of real value. And the sensation of never making progress or feeling like you haven’t made an impact can take a greater toll than the actual work itself.
The items that demand the most attention throughout the day are rarely the things that help us make true contributions to our team. If you think back to major breakthroughs or accolades you’ve received in the past, they’re usually because you did something substantial. Something memorable. You did the RIGHT thing. The thing that MADE A DENT in the universe.
Usually, life adheres pretty closely to the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80-20 rule: 80% of your gains come from 20% of your efforts. And 20% of your gains come from 80% of your efforts.
So, you have to find that 20%—those few things that are really going to “move the needle” and make an impact. Because they are not the items that scream the loudest on your to-do list.
This is why it takes discipline and wisdom to separate the wheat from the chaff. What are the projects or actions that will bring the most value?
Of course, this means de-prioritizing, delaying or even eliminating other tasks all together.
You might be thinking, how can I sort through my to do list to determine what to prioritize and what to de-prioritize?
One tool you can use is the “Eisenhower Box,” which was also featured in The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. Former president Eisenhower reportedly used this matrix to organize his tasks and determine where to focus his energy:
Using the grid urges you to focus the majority of your time on the upper left quadrant: the important and urgent items. The important and non-urgent items can be tackled, but you should plan to do those at another time. The items that aren’t important but are urgent should be delegated to someone else. And items that aren’t important or urgent should be eliminated altogether.
This is a helpful tool, but you should ultimately strive for an even more laser-like focus. If you find that you have multiple items ending up in the “important and urgent” box, then you need to reassess.
When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.
Part of the issue is that the word “priority” has been used incorrectly in modern business culture. As Greg McKeown points out in the book Essentialism, having multiple prioirties begins to defeat the purpose of prioritizing. The word “priority” originated in the 1400s and comes from “prior,” meaning “first.” It was used in the singular for 500 years, until the 1900s when we chose to pluralize it.
So how do you find your singular priority in any given situation? It’s no easy thing—it requires discipline.
In The One Thing, Gary Keller argues that the key is asking yourself the question: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
He goes on to suggest visualizing your tasks like dominoes. What is the one magic domino that you can knock over that will help start knocking over the rest of the dominoes?
Once you know the truly important thing(s) you need focus on, you need fiercely guard your time and steel yourself against distractions. This means resisting getting sucked into busywork like email and unnecessary meetings. But most of all, it means BLOCKING OUT YOUR TIME to focus on your highest priorities.
It can be a little scary when you radically change your routine at work. You might feel like your colleagues or clients will be mad when you start blocking off your schedule at certain times of the day. But you’d be surprised how well and how quickly they adjust.
If you can begin to train your team to get used to your “blackout periods,” not only can you get more high-priority work done, but you can increase the perception of your contribution at work. Being selectively available helps establish that your worth isn’t tied into simply “available” whenever there’s work to be done. Your worth lies in you providing valuable insights and contributions that truly make an impact.
- Recognize that if you don’t prioritize your day, someone else will
- Shift your work away from reactive tasks to selective priorities; try limit your use of email, meetings where you don’t have a direct role, and other “busywork” throughout the day
- Become disciplined about zeroing in on your top priority and area of greatest impact
- Get comfortable with scheduling large blocks of focus-time where you can’t be interrupted
- Gently train your co-workers, boss, and clients that your worth doesn’t lie in being available every minute of the day; you make real impact and provide real value where it counts
9. Embrace Failure as An Essential Part of Success
It’s easy to get down on yourself when you make a mistake or miss a milestone.
You look around and you see other people who appear to be “killing it.” Everything always goes right for them. They never mess up.
But if you look closer, you’ll see that it’s not that those people never fail, it’s that they have learned to take failure in stride. Or even better, they’ve figured out how to “fail forward” where they not only bounce back from their mistakes, but find ways to learn from them.
First, you have to remember that comparing yourself to anyone else is always a loaded game. Because you don’t see the nitty gritty of what they actually go through or the mistakes they’ve made when you weren’t looking.
As the saying goes: “Don’t compare your messy backstage so someone else’s presentable front stage production.”
It’s never a fair comparison.
The truth is that most successful people view failure not only a natural part of moving forward, but many see it as INTEGRAL to success. It all comes down to reframing how you look at failure. As we discussed earlier, people who are less resilient might blame themselves for an inherent shortcoming when they fail. Or they might see it as a permanent situation that will never improve.
Resilient people, on the other hand, see failures as the result of temporary challenges. And not only that, they see the value in learning from failure. To them, failure isn’t a message from the universe telling them they’re worthless or washed up. To them, failure is feedback.
They don’t berate themselves after a setback. They pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and say: “Ok, that didn’t work, let me try a different way.” Or: “That was a good learning experience, on to the next challenge.”
Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I have found several thousand things that won’t work.
Some of the greatest minds in science, architecture, medicine, entertainment…you name it…have used failures to ultimately find paths to success:
Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper because he was told he “lacked creativity.” He then went on to start his first animation company “Laugh-O-Gram Films,” which failed. All of this before he started one of the most recognizable entertainment brands in world history.
In Fred Astaire’s first screen test, the testing director of MGM noted that Astaire “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.”
Milton Hershey had 3 other failed candy companies before finally starting Hershey.
R.H. Macy started 7 failed businesses before hitting it big with his department store in New York City.
One could argue easily that each failure brought them closer to finally “figuring out the secret sauce” to their success.
After Thomas Edison made 1,000 “failed” experiments, an assistant asked him if it was difficult to make so many attempts without results. He reportedly replied, “Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I have found several thousand things that won’t work.”
While Babe Ruth was known for his career home run record, for decades he also had the record for the most strikeouts. He famously said: “Every strikeout brings me closer to the next home run.”
If you can adopt the right mindset towards failure, you can use it continually learn, continually tweak, continue to improve yourself—and ultimately find the ways to make the biggest impact at work.
- Reframe your outlook on failure—you can choose how you’re going to respond to setbacks
- Don’t set out to fail, but always try to “fail forward” using it as a learning experience
- Remember that failure is often a necessary part of achieving greatness—and it can be an invaluable learning tool if you use it to your advantage
10. In All Things, Seek First to Understand
When you’re having a horrible day…or a horrible month, it’s often hard to remember that everyone around you is NOT conspiring against you.
Often, when your head is down and you’re trying to finish a big project or meet a specific milestone, any bumps you encounter along the way can seem like a purposeful interruption of your journey.
Imagine this example: you’re down to the wire and you need some critical information quickly. You reach out to your colleague via email. Then after what seems like an eternity waiting for his response, he sends back a flippant, semi-incoherent response that only addresses half the points you listed in your email…and to top it all off, you sense TONE in the email—you’re not positive, but you’re pretty sure he’s giving you attitude.
You think to yourself, “How dare he send me a half-ass email response, when I’m out of time and everything depends on getting this squared away!!! Why is [person] so difficult to work with—he must HATE me!!”
Learning to be empathetic and trying to understand a situation before jumping to conclusions can have a tremendously valuable effect.
But in reality, your co-worker’s behavior is not as calculated as you think.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey reminds us to “Seek First to Understand…Then To Be Understood.” This concept is valuable when it comes to persuading someone of a viewpoint. But it’s equally valuable, maybe even more so, when you’re choosing how to respond to the actions of another person.
When you step back and try to truly understand a situation like we just described with your co-worker, you realize that it’s usually far more innocent.
Your co-worker doesn’t care enough to make your life difficult. He’s got his own pile of crap to deal with—and that’s the only thing he’s focused on. As a universal rule, people are naturally self-interested. So if you can look at their actions and words through that lens, you’ll be far better off.
Learning to be empathetic and trying to understand a situation before jumping to conclusions can have a tremendously valuable effect. First, you resist going into a negative tailspin in your head, which allows you to assess the situation more objectively. Second, you learn to recognize that if you can see the situation from the other person’s perspective, you may just figure out a better way to get what you want.
Let’s go back to our example: you reached out to your colleague and asked for some critical information. Suddenly you remember that he’s been tremendously stressed about some personal drama in his life. To top it off, he’s been covering for another co-worker and has been buried by extra emails and requests every day.
So now, instead of sending back a “nasty-gram,” you take a different approach: armed with your new-found empathy, you call him and spend the first few minutes connecting with him on a personal level—checking in on his personal situation. You tell him if he ever wants to grab some coffee and chat, that you’re a great listener. Then shifting gears, you explain how important and urgent your request is—and if he could just do you a favor and log into the database while you’re on the phone and check these few things, it would be a huge help to you personally.
By virtue of just taking a second to be empathetic, you get what you needed, and you both end up feeling a little better after the call.
Beyond helping you interact better with people, the habit of trying to fully understand before acting is extremely valuable to strategic business decisions.
When you can be disciplined and challenge yourself to always look for root causes, it elevates your value as a critical-thinker and can help multiply your contribution ten-fold.
No longer are you caught in the cycle of (over)reacting to assumptions and surface-level details. You try to truly understand—to dig deeper and grasp the foundational elements of problems and situations.
Practicing these habits can also be tremendously calming. The perspective of true understanding helps relieve stress and positively focus your efforts on where they can be most effective.
- Before reacting to someone’s behavior, seek first to understand
- Remember that empathy is your most powerful tool when dealing with people, and it will always give you better results than “playing hardball”
- Build the habit of always looking for the root cause
11. Enjoy the Renewing Power of Personal Connections at Work
Some people make a point of separating work life from personal life—even hiding their true personality at work because they want to maintain some sort of “firewall.”
That’s up to you, but ultimately you’ll be way more effective if you recognize that social interaction is the medium through which everything happens.
You see, even when “business is business” and you keep things “professional,” you’re still dealing with people. Humans. Humans with families and personalities and interests, fears and quirks.
So, it’s impossible to separate work from people. Not only should you not ignore that fact. But you can take advantage of that fact. In order to become more resilient at work, it’s imperative to recognize the human dynamics in all things. It helps you be more mindful of why things happen the way they do.
But also, consciously cultivating connections with people at work can be an amazing way to release stress, maintain perspective, and to improve teamwork. Studies have shown that good work relationships can increase happiness on the job and boost productivity.
Most likely, you spend more waking hours with your co-workers than you do with your family or significant other. So, why not embrace it and make those relationships the best they can be?
While you might need to start with small talk at first, if you’re genuinely interested, you can begin building rapport with coworkers so the conversation becomes effortless.
- Don’t be afraid to talk about personal topics with your co-workers (within reason, of course; use your judgment)
- Ask how your co-worker is doing, ask about their spouse or their kids or their family—truly ask how their weekend was…and listen to their response before rattling on about your own.
- Use fleeting moments—like when everyone is assembling for a meeting or when you bump into each other in the kitchen or the hall—to make these mini-connections.
- Especially make an effort to connect during the toughest times. Sometimes a quick laugh with your co-worker can break your negative thought patterns and melt away the stress for both of you.
- Ask your co-worker out for a quick cup of coffee or lunch
- See these brief connection not as a distraction from work, but as necessary for a more productive and happier workplace
12. Compartmentalize the Influence of Negative or Difficult People
It is an unfortunate truth that “one bad apple can sometimes spoil the bunch.”
Sometimes you can have the best day…the best week even…then one negative comment from someone, and it all comes crashing down.
Now suddenly your job sucks, your life sucks, and you’re a loser. All because one person said your work wasn’t perfect.
Paying attention to constructive criticism is essential for continuing to improve at your job. But sometimes you get co-workers, clients or bosses who consistently breed negativity or cause drama.
If you’re not careful, they can poison the whole team—not to mention throw you off your game and leave you second-guessing yourself.
So what do you do?
Learn to recognize these people and isolate them. They’re not hard to spot: they’re the “glass-half-empty” people. The people who like to shoot holes in everything and criticize people or make waves and headaches for everyone else…All because, well, they just can’t help themselves.
Don’t get me wrong—there is value in having ultra-critical people on a team. Sometimes you need to see the negative side of things. Challenge internal ideas. Poke holes. Expose weaknesses in your own product or service. True success rarely comes from blind optimism; it requires critical assessment at times.
But you can’t let negative or difficult people contaminate the rest of the team. Learning to recognize and isolate these people can do wonders for your overall outlook.
The best approach is to try and acknowledge the value that they provide, but to channel it into constructive use. The glass-half-full people are not the people you want in a brainstorming session: the best brainstorms happen when a team can build up momentum and be unhindered by practical concerns or limits. But their critical feedback can help you identify cracks in your work that other people may not have noticed yet—in which might actually need fixing.
Most of all, you have to learn to get past their delivery. Even if what they say sounds like a personal attack on you, do your best to look for useful value in it. Sometimes you’ll get great insights. And other times, well, you’ll just have to let it roll of your back and say to yourself, “Ah, that’s just Karen being Karen. Whataya gonna do…”
- Be mindful of people who are consistently negative or difficult, and be sure to evaluate their contribution separately from the rest of your team
- Always remind yourself not to take anything they say or do personally. Remember, it’s usually something about them that drives that negativity—not you.
- Learn to “respond, not react” to critical feedback and comments
- Choose your battles wisely—there’s a time to challenge negativity, and then there’s a time to just let it roll off your back and move on with your day
- Look for ways to “judo” their negativity to add value to the situation
13. Establish a Network of Healthy Release Valves
No man (or woman) is an island. As we’ve already discussed, working in the modern office environment can bring constant demands and stresses, as well uncertainty, doubt, and fear.
It’s a lot to handle.
Even if you’re treating your body right and “taking care of your machine” you can get into a pinch if you let all that stress, fear and negativity stay bottled up inside you.
Find ways to let it out by talking to other people. Having a coach or a mentor who you can bounce ideas off of can be a great way to get perspective and get rid of negative thoughts.
As I mentioned above, connecting with your co-workers can be a great way to let off steam; but be careful not to let it turn into a bitching session. You’re there to support each other and commiserate, not to reinforce your angst.
Even your boss can be a good sounding board, but depending on your relationship you need to be careful not to sound like you’re complaining. I’ve found that the best approach is to frame it more like “these are the things I’ve been worrying about and stewing over. I’d love to get your perspective.” The key is to make it clear from the outset that you’re open to constructive solutions, and you’re not there just to condemn the job or the situation.
Of course, chatting with a counselor or therapist can always be helpful as well to provide some much-needed perspective and release.
Beyond talking about your work problems, it can be helpful to have a creative outlet like journaling, drawing or playing music.
- Talk to a coach or mentor
- Chat with a confidant at work, even your boss
- Talk to a counselor
- Have creative outlet, like journaling, drawing, music
14. Consistently Step Back to Get an Objective Perspective
When you’re going through tough times, it’s easy to lose perspective. You get wrapped up in the complexity of a project or drama with a client or co-worker. And it can seem like the whole world is crumbling.
But if you can make a habit of stepping back to evaluate your situation objectively, it can be very helpful.
No matter how bad things are, unless you’re a doctor or a soldier, it’s rarely a life or death situation. The outcome of your project is not going to determine whether global warming accelerates, or whether millions of children in Africa starve, or whether an asteroid hits the planet…
Usually, it just determines whether you gain or lose some money. Or how your stock does. Or how happy your customers or clients are. And sometimes the stakes are even lower than that.
But we get soooo worked up…over basically nothing.
Ok, I know it sounds cheesy, but when you get stressed out and feel sorry for yourself, think about people who are less fortunate than you. It’s not hard. They’re all around you: people who’ve lost limbs, people who can’t experience the beauty of a painting because they’ve lost their sight. People who couldn’t even do your job if they wanted to because they have crippling social anxiety.
When you’re worried about something, ask yourself: will I be worried about this in six months?
I know I’m preaching a bit here, but DAMN, you’ve got to step back and recognize what you have. Some people would KILL for your shitty job. None of your “problems and concerns” are even remotely relevant to them, because the only time they even get a shower and a hot meal is once a week at a shelter.
You can further put things in perspective when you realize that most of the things that worry you are part of a revolving door of other worries. When you’re stressed about something, ask yourself: will I be worried about this in a month or six months? Most of the time, the answer is no. In all likelihood, you’ll be worrying about something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT in a month. So there you go…
You can cultivate the right frame of mind by consciously trying to practice gratitude. See the value of what you have. Yes, you have to take your lumps and bumps. But all in all, you are tremendously fortunate.
Also, learn to savor the moment. So much of being stressed out at work comes from being in your head—worrying about things that may or may not even happen. Make it a priority to be in the present moment for a second and savor the little pleasantries: we talked earlier about enjoying a quick laugh with a co-worker. Let yourself experience the rapturous enjoyment of the Peet’s French Roast that your office always has in stock (free coffee! homeless people don’t get that either!). Appreciate the view of the sunset and the birds from your conference room window, even if you’ll be working late that night…
- Realize that the stakes are rarely as high as they seem
- Try to be grateful for what you have, and remember that so many people would kill for your job and your situation
- Remember that what you’re worrying about now is part of an endless revolving door of constantly changing worries
- Cultivate your gratitude, and learn to savor little moments—especially when you’re at work
15. Use Humor to Evaporate Stress and Remember the “Big Picture”
Some people unfortunately think that the office is a place that needs to stay “buttoned up” and serious in order stay productive.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
When teams are really taxed—when anxiety levels are at the max—humor can be one of the most powerful ways to cut through stress and put everything in perspective.
This is why if you’ve ever watched surgeons in an OR, no matter how complicated the procedure or how dire the situation, usually they’re chit-chatting and making jokes. Think about it: when times are stressful and when the stakes are high, does it REALLY help to stay serious and be morose? No, it just puts everyone on edge. And when you’re on edge you rarely perform at your optimal level.
Making time for humor—a quick joke here and there, sharing a funny story—can be essential to reinvigorating a team. Sometimes even laughing at the ridiculousness of the workload can be refreshing. “Ok, wow. This timeline is ridiculous. Should be a fun time!” Sometimes all you can do is laugh.
Laughing can literally have a positive physical effect on you. It helps reduce stress hormones, helps bring oxygen to your organs, and over time may improve your immune systems, along with a whole host of other physical benefits.
Not only that, but sharing a laugh with your co-workers can help put things in perspective. You end up deepening the connection with your co-workers and remembering that you’re all just regular people trying to do your best. And more than likely, you’ll all live to laugh about another predicament again in the future.
- Embrace the stress-reducing, healing properties of laughter
- Use humor as a way to connect with co-workers and keep things in perspective
16. Savor the “Selfish” Act of Helping Others
Besides neglecting yourself, one of the first things that you might be tempted to do when you’re over-stressed is to draw inward and forget about helping others.
Suddenly, you don’t feel as inclined to volunteer to coach your nephew’s soccer league or lend a hand to your friend who needs help moving into a new apartment.
You feel like the best thing for you since you can barely handle the stress of work and life right now, is to just focus on your job. You’ve got enough crap to deal with—adding anything more will only increase your stress.
There’s definitely some value in being mindful of not overcommitting and spreading yourself too thin. For me, the worst thing I hate doing is making promises to other people and then having to break them.
But ironically there’s also some amazing benefits that can come from helping others—especially when you’re stressed and feel like you have no more to give.
Studies show that the act of helping others can work to dissolve stress and give you a sense of well-being. Some people suggest that the positive effect is due to simply shifting focus away from yourself for a moment; it also helps get you more in touch with your values and makes you more grateful for what you have.
Most people who’ve discovered the “giver’s high” become addicted to helping others. Have you ever met someone who always seems to be volunteering for different charities? Soup kitchen on Sunday, homeless shelter Wednesday night, SPCA every other Monday… You look at them and wonder how they have the strength and energy to GIVE so much.
It’s because of what they GET BACK.
Ironically, many of those people feel like they get back even more than they put in. They feel equally blessed by the opportunity to meet people who need their help, and to feel like they’re doing something genuinely good without expecting anything tangible in return.
Most people who’ve discovered the “giver’s high” become addicted to helping others.
They’ve stumbled upon the beautiful reality that helping others helps them.
Helping other people—whether volunteering, contributing to a charity, or even just helping your co-worker with something small during the workday—can help neutralize stress and give you boundless amounts of energy.
Seeing how we can make a difference in just one person’s life—even if it’s just to make them smile—helps to fuel our empathy and sense of connection. It also helps put all of this crazy, stressy work stuff in perspective. At the end of the day, we all work and live in order to be happy and healthy, and to connect with other people in meaningful ways. That’s what it’s all about.
- Let go of the fallacy that you should only focus on yourself when you’re stressed out
- Look for ways to help other people who are less fortunate or who could just use a little pick-me-up
- Begin enjoying the “selfish” act of focusing on someone besides yourself
17. Every Day, Remind Yourself Why You are Working
One of the toughest things is to blindly push forward, living in a constant state of stress and to forget WHY you’re doing it.
Ultimately, you have to remember that you actually “choose” to do what you’re doing. Even though it may not seem like it, you are choosing to be where you are right now. And you choose to do it because you agreed that it’s worth it in order to achieve what you want to achieve. Whether that’s just to afford a decent apartment or house, eat nice meals, or whether you want to be able to retire one day and have nice “cushion” so you can enjoy your golden years.
Ask yourself, why are you working?
You hear scores of people talk about how they’re working so that they can save up enough money for when they’re old and they can go live in Europe or ride motorcycles in Asia.
As Tim Ferriss points out in The 4-Hour Work-Week, a dream like riding motorcycles across Asia might sound far off. But in reality, it’s much more achievable in the short term than you might think. Tim is a big proponent of the advantages of taking “mini-retirements” like this rather than working all your life and delaying enjoyment until your quote-un-quote golden years….
So often, people stay in jobs because they just feel the pressure to be “gainfully employed.” Meanwhile, they forget that they’re making a very clear tradeoff of exchanging time for money.
More important than looking at the “top line” of how much salary you’re making, you have to look at the “bottom line”— the net benefit that you get from working.
As Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez remind us in Your Money or Your Life, you have to be critically aware of the hidden costs of your job:
As I mentioned a moment ago, the biggest and most obvious one is your time. Time is perhaps our most precious, and un-renewable resource. You’re giving up time in your life to have a job and make money.
But even more insidious are some of the less obvious costs, which you might rationalize as the “cost of doing business.”
- Your office has a formal dress code, so you need to buy suits, shirts, and ties
- You need to pay to have those special clothes dry-cleaned
- You have a hefty commute, so you need a reliable car
- You need to pay for gas, maintenance, and insurance for that car
- Your clients and colleagues belong to a sports club, and there’s pressure for you to join so you feel like you’re part of the “inner circle.”
- They also like to go out for fancy dinners and drinks, and you’re often urged to attend
While at first you might think your job is a huge win because of the “top-line” evaluation of the salary, where do all these hidden costs leave your bottom line? Especially when you consider the priceless value of your time, which you give away every day.
I’m not urging you to throw your hands up and quit your job. Only to do be very honest about the deal you’re making with yourself regarding your job.
Far from being a downer, taking a fresh look at the real nature of why you are working can be very empowering.
It reminds you that, yes, you do in fact CHOOSE to work at your job. And this can help give you tremendous perspective that keeps temporary stress and difficulties from getting you down.
I had a client tell me once, “Look, we all do this so we can we can make good money and lead a lifestyle that we enjoy living—I think that’s worth having to work a couple weekends every other month.”
Clearly, he had looked at his job from an objective perspective and decided that yes, he was okay with the tradeoffs. Ultimately, I think this kept him more level-headed and happy.
- Be honest with yourself about why you are working—is it to support a certain lifestyle?
- Are you working to check off a bucket-list item you’ll “eventually” do? Could you do it now instead?
- Calculate the intangible costs of your work, and be sure you’re evaluating the “bottom line” of what working gives you
Start Developing Your Resilience Now
It’s clear that the key to surviving in the modern workplace is not to work harder or work more hours, but to become more resilient.
You can start using these resilience techniques today. Download the free checklist so you can easily refer back to all 17 tips on a daily basis.
As a next step, try using one of these resilience techniques at work this week. After you’ve given it a try, let me know how it goes! Leave a comment below.
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