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How do you manage work-place stress? One technique I have found helpful is ‘expanding the problem’.

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Do you ever find yourself, at work, feeling stressed out, tense, a pit in your stomach, anxious and concerned, tired out? Work-related stress seems to be a common theme in today’s workforce, and it’s something I’ve faced myself.

Here’s an example of one way this can happen:

Suppose you have to deliver a report. You feel motivated, pumped. You’re going to focus on your goal and get the job done. Now the first step is to talk to Judy and then Mike, who have crucial information you need. But it turns out that Judy is on leave. So you go and talk to her manager, Beth, and Beth tells you that she can give you part of the information you need from Judy, but for the rest, you’ll need to get off Joe, in another department. So you go and talk to Joe and he emails you a link. But when you try it, it turns out to be password protected! So to get it unlocked, you need to talk to Jim in IT. All of a sudden, this initially straight-forward task of making a report has grown into a complex maze of people and information. Your to-do list is stacking up with items and you get to the end of the day, not having “completed” even a part of the report.

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You feel perhaps a bit agitated, restless, stressed our, or maybe tired or worn out or mildly depressed. You feel like you got nothing done. And that’s not a nice feeling!

This kind of stress/depression can occur even with relatively solitary activities, such as design or engineering. Nay, especially in those activities! Say you’re in the midst of a coding problem, you’ve been Google-ing for a solution, and you find something that almost works but not quite, and you go for a whole day and not really “finish” anything.

What can we do, constructively, about dealing with these situations?

I’ve found that the problem often is being too focused on the end-result, on the solution that I’m seeking. And because of that, I’m judging my progress (and perhaps myself) whenever I fail to meet that result. And by the end of the day, those failures and judgements have accumulated, and I feel a burden of, guilt, debt, etc.

So one mindfulness-inspired practice I have been trying is that of expanding the problem. Imagine the problem as a funnel, very wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. If you try to force lots of material through at once, it will inevitably be blocked by the narrowest part of the funnel. But if you were to widen the funnel – convert it to a pipe – then all the material could move through at the same speed, without blockage.

To apply this to your work mindset: you’re putting all your focus and energy on the wide part of the funnel – the solution. But the process of achieving the solution, the narrow part, is consuming your effort. So you’re trying to force a lot of effort through a very narrow space. But what if you were to mentally expand your work process. Giving it more attention and energy, and making it feel larger in your mind.

So for example, say you have to talk to Judy, and then go and speak to Jim in IT about getting the password, you can see that as part of your journey toward your solution. And it counts as work, and in fact, counts as a success and an achievement.

So, as you look at your ‘to do’ list, perhaps you see a line like this:

• Finish report

Scrub it out! And, instead, write:

• Speak with Jim in IT
• Email Jim password request

And before the end of the day, you can have those two ticked off!

Speak with Jim in IT
Email Jim password request

Notice that now you’re re-focusing on the actions and tasks you’re performing throughout the day, in order to get the result, and not focusing directly on the result.

And you’re expanding the problem-space. Perhaps you identify a whole network of people who you need to interact with, to get the job done. And then you discover efficiencies – ways you can shortcut the process or get extra value out of it, e.g. getting to meet people and learn about the organisation in the process. So, you might not have delivered the report by the end of the day, but you did learn who Jim was, and established a rapport with him, which could serve you well in the future.

By focusing on the problem, you achieve small incremental results on the way to achieving your big result. And you can leave work at the end of the day with a feeling of success and accomplishment. You can close that day off, get a good night’s sleep and come in the next morning with the energy and motivation to keep going.

Additionally, if you’re going through many tedious steps – a process – in order to achieve an outcome, chances are your work is, by nature, complex. Chances are that this complexity will re-appear at another time. So the learning and knowledge you gain from working through this complex process, if you hang on to it, can help you work through other complex processes in the future.

That’s the technique in a nutshell. Expand the problem, give the problem space. Perhaps try visualising it, through writing, drawing, diagramming, etc. Give yourself time and focus on each action/task, each step of the way, and let the solution come when it’s ready.

Author: conwy

Developer & Designer. Here I observe, synthesize and share my learnings from over 15 years working in software focused on user needs. Believe in relationships, empathy, evidence and results.

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