As soon as the headless chicken wakes up, it starts running in circles. It becomes frantically active, checks its mail, and feels the urge to do something. Anything that can relieve the stress and the worries will do.
While handling the phone, it opens the pantry to refill the coffee maker. Too bad, there is no more ground coffee left. Well, instant coffee will do for now.
“Shit, it put the coffee in the kettle instead of the cup…”
The chicken has no time; it wants to do everything at once.
And so it forgets some of its papers on the nightstand and runs back and forth and all around the house to fetch everything for the office.
It truly has lost its head.
Fortunately, the drive to the office is without any major incident. While still at the wheel, the chicken’s head is already at the morning meeting.
It doesn’t see anything to its left or right. Neither beauty nor danger! Had a little chick suddenly run out from behind the parking cars, it would have been flat!
In fact, a little bit earlier, there was a little chick.
Luckily, by the time the headless chicken drove by, the little chick had already safely crossed the street. An elderly couple saw it early and stopped to allow the chick to cross safely.
The headless chicken didn’t know anything about this though when it angrily flashed its headlights at the slow moving car in front of it – the car of the elderly couple that had just spared the headless chicken a nightmare.
What does this have to do with me?
I have been a headless chicken at some point in my life. Sometimes I still am, I am afraid.
But now I have more experience and strategies to re-find my head in most situations. I am still learning, mind you.
In this post, I want to share with you how we often lose our head in the craziness of our busy mind, and eight simple techniques that help me to stay happy and productive.
If even one of them helps you to get back your peace of mind and cruise through the day, this post has served its purpose.
How the chicken lost its head
At the root of our frantic activity are worries that we are going to run out of time or money and the realization that we have no control over this world.
We feel we have to do something, anything to get back in control and on top of things.
Here are some common causes for our headless-ness:
1. Time pressure, a shortage of money, or another scarcity tends to lock us into a narrow focus. We want to somehow instantly relieve this pain. We need to get something going.
Sometimes it is not really a shortage but rather the fear of losing our money or losing out on an opportunity. House prices or bitcoin have gone up again, and we are still sitting on the sidelines.
Or we are already invested – and are worrying that a big correction might be imminent.
We want or need to win now!
Two solution hints: Take a step back. Get things out of your head and on paper. Put things into perspective.
2. We have become attached to a problem. Often this happens when we spend too much time thinking about it. We haven’t been taking mental breaks.
A solution hint: The problem might be difficult, but there might alternatives to solving it. Change your perspective. Do something else. Talk to friends. Do I really need to solve this?
3. We have no clear goal or priority and no plan for the day. Deadlines may be looming, yet we don’t know what to do first.
A solution hint: Set a clear goal for the day.
4. Firefighting sucks up our energy and diminishes productivity
Every day is going to bring its own fires and emergencies that need to be dealt with.
How to become a happy chicken with direction
1. Take a step back and put some space between you and your work or day.
You have got to stop before you become headless. And if you haven’t managed to do that, you have to stop as soon as you realize that you are running in circles.
Usually our worries already start in the morning; they may be remnants of the previous day; they may also get triggered by a particularly vivid dream just before the alarm clock pulled us out of it.
I consciously allow myself half on hour of peace and quiet in the morning. I make myself a cup of coffee and enjoy my coffee. Then I sit down for a short meditation. This is my time.
If my mind is full of worries and jumping around, I just grab my iPad and start writing.
I write out everything that comes to mind. I am always surprised how effective writing is at dispelling worries. Most of the entangled crap disentangles itself when put on paper.
Other options for putting some space between you and the craziness:
- Get up from your desk and go for a walk.
- Sit down for a peaceful coffee or tea at a coffee shop
2. Write out your thoughts and worries instead of churning them all in your head.
I have touched upon writing in the first point. But writing is so effective that it deserves is own point.
I get on top of my challenges and worries by writing them out. I have found that writing vastly increases my capacity to think.
There is a good reason for this: Our working memory capacity and hence ability to connect the dots in our mind is quite limited indeed; we can only handle three or four items at the same time.
When I write out my thoughts, I am much less likely to go in circles and keep thinking the same stuff over and over again. Worries that are obscure when dealt with purely in the mind become very concrete on paper. Most of them disappear by themselves.
You don’t have to follow any rules when writing: Just grab a pen or your phone and write whatever comes to mind. Write for at least 10 minutes in complete sentences. Don’t worry about grammar or style.
Just one thing: don’t do anything else while you are writing. No checking Facebook, no interruptions.
Sometimes I am too lazy to pick up my iPad or a pen. And I always pay the price.
Think about it this way: if you have the time to ruminate about something for 10 minutes, you have got 10 minutes to write about it. What’s more, other people see you are busy working!
3. First things first: Set a clear goal.
“What is the most important thing for me to work on right now?” This goal becomes my focus.
I make this one thing my top priority, and ask myself:
“What actions can I take now to move this forward?”
I write down 3 or 4 steps and start executing them. These steps have to be concrete things I can do. If something is too complicated, it needs to be broken down further.
When other things come up while I am executing, they simply go on a list.
This works so well because each executed action step under my belt motivates me to do the next and allows me to take a break without feeling guilty. Checked that one!
4. Ask “How can I enjoy this?” instead of exclaiming “I have to be finished with this as soon as possible.”
Enjoying what I do is paramount to me.
The key is to really be with what I am doing at a particular time.
If I think too much about what I have to do next, I tend to get ahead of myself, and I deprive my current work of its meaning.
Then, when I finish it, I don’t feel accomplished, but rather hasten to the next must-do item.
Over time this drains me emotionally and mentally.
Ideally, each completed task should leave you with more excitement and anticipation to what comes next.
If you can’t find a way to enjoy what you are doing, alternatively ask yourself: “How can I do this so it provides maximum value to me and others?”
Don’t try solving all problems of past and future at once!
5. Walk away from a problem while you still have energy.
It is so easy to get consumed by a task that one misses the sign one is overexerting oneself.
At times, I can get so attached to a problem that I can’t let go of it.
I have to stop before my energy has run so low that I can’t muster the decision to take a break anymore.
If you work in fixed time intervals (time boxes) and respect when you have completed a time box and take a break, it becomes much easier to keep the perspective. You are temporarily walking away from the problem to come back with renewed energy.
You wouldn’t do endless reps in the gym if you wanted to build your strength either.
6. Focus on building systems rather than implementing short-term fixes.
The fastest way is often the slowest when looking at it from a long-term perspective.
Before you engage in quick and dirty, ask yourself “how often will I have to solve this or a similar problem?”
“How can I make future incarnations of this easier?”
If you document what you are doing, you don’t have to keep figuring out the same problems again and again. Instead, you can review your documentation and just follow it when you are low on energy.
When you have more energy at your disposal, refine your approach and update the documentation.
If firefighting and quick-and-dirty are leaving you drained and you are looking for a way out, I recommend you check out Work the System by Sam Carpenter.
7. Put things in perspective. Why do I need to solve this problem?
Don’t sweat the small stuff, unless you really enjoy the stuff.
We can get caught up in all kinds of things whose outcome doesn’t really have an impact on us and other people. There is an opportunity cost to wasting time on problems that don’t make a difference.
My recent bitcoin-gamble had very little potential to make a big difference in my overall portfolio, but understanding how to put it all together certainly consumed a lot of my time.
8. Being in total control is a mirage.
I can work hard and create the environment for good things to happen. But, I can’t force them to happen.
I can build a perfectly well-running, optimized machine.
But, I remember quite well when I was looking out of my fifth-floor window a couple of years ago: a typhoon had turned the road downstairs into a river. There was no way I could make it to the airport.
Let me know how you regain your head and avoid losing it in the first place in the comment section.
Along the same lines, I recommend my post Unlock Your Problem Solving Powers and Squash Your Worries through Writing.
Note to self: Print out that chicken and hang it up on the wall in front of you.
May you have a happy and productive day!