Life can be overwhelming. Sooner or later, we go through situations that leave us feeling stressed, anxious, worried, or unfocused. But, as the old Epictetus saying goes, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters”.
Tim Ferriss made it his professional goal to deconstruct world-class performers of all types to tease out the habits, routines and so on that you can apply and test yourself in your own life. In his book “Tribe of Mentors”, he asks a set of questions from 100 of these world-class performers. One of such questions is:
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?
Here are some of the most interesting answers, that you can start applying to your life straight away.
“I seek out people to help me regain my focus, my confidence, and my clarity. I live my life in a network of friends, family, colleagues, strangers, mentors, and students. When I get overwhelmed, I lose a sense of direction, and I need a human GPS to help me ‘recalculate’ and find my path.”
“I pretend that my family has died in a horrific accident. Honestly, that’s what I do. It’s probably weirder than a lot of people’s answers, but it’s absolutely what drives me. I go to a very dark place, really feel it, feel that pain in my heart, and then realize no matter what I’m dealing with right now, that it’s not even in the same universe of something like that. Then I become grateful for losing that client, missing that opportunity, getting made fun of, etc.”
“I have a few approaches. First, I journal. I journal at least thrice a week now, and the time dedicated to it is proportional to my state of mind.
I also do a ‘so what’ exercise. I make a statement and ask myself ‘so what?’ at the end of it. For instance,
X was rude
I felt disrespected.
What if everyone stops respecting me?
I will be alone and loathed.
I don’t want to be alone.
I have an irrational fear of loneliness.
So nothing, I’m good.
“I ask myself ‘what would be the worst thing’ about that outcome not going the way I want? I had started using it out loud with my kids and recently my eight-year-old daughter started asking it back to me. I really like to be punctual. We were late to drop her at school and I was impatient, so she asked me, ‘Dad, what exactly would be the worst thing about being late?’ It completely shifted my mindset in the moment. I like the question because it usually surfaces a hidden assumption.”
“Memento mori — ‘remember that you have to die’. All of this will go to nothing. Remember before you were born? Just like that.”
“I meditate. I sit for 20 minutes and meditate. Best thing I ever learned how to do.”
“The most helpful practice for me when I feel unfocused is to go for a walk in nature. Being near the water has a calming effect on my nervous system, and the rhythm of the waves coming and going pacifies me. Also, going for a walk among the trees has a similar effect. In Japanese, there is a term, ‘forest bathing’, where you take a walk under the trees and the coolness, the smell, and the silence wash over you. I feel relaxed, cleansed, and clear-minded afterward.”
Andrew Ross Sorkin
“Whenever I’m feeling like I need to prioritize what I’m doing or overthinking a particular situation that is making me anxious, I try to remember this great exchange in the film Bridge of Spies. Tom Hanks, who plays a lawyer, asks his client, who is being accused of being a spy, ‘Aren’t you worried?’. His answer: ‘Would it help?’. That is the pivotal question that I ask myself every day. If you put everything through that prism, it is a remarkably effective way to cut through the clutter.”
“In my photos on my phone, I made an album called ‘calm’. I have photos and videos of my animals, funny pictures, memes, inspiring quotes, articles about neurology, gratitude lists, all sorts of things that make me smile and reconnect to my source. It’s like my own personal digital Zen museum. Honestly, I think I’d be way more embarrassed if hackers released this album than any nude photos in my phone, but it’s worth the risk. When I’m adrenalized, distracted, emotional or anxious, I go into the album and it always grounds me; it reminds me of what’s important and what’s temporary. It’s super helpful at work, because I can do it around people, while travelling, and at times when I don’t have the luxury of a quiet room or a walk. Oh, and I put my phone in airplane mode first, so I’m not getting texts and emails while trying to find sanity away from texts and emails.”
“Take a walk or run. Have sex. Or eat. Then I make lists. Generally, the cure for feeling overwhelmed is getting to a state of appreciation. Walking helps you appreciate the world around you. Running helps you appreciate oxygen, health, life. Sex… I mean, come on, it’s sex. Food is really just to make sure that you aren’t hangry. And making lists brings organization to the chaos and generally turns big things into little actionable things.”
Mike Maples Jr.
“I step back… and slow down… and ask the five whys. Let’s take an example: Say we miss the sales target for a quarter. It can often become tempting to figure out ‘whose’ fault it was. If you are not very, very careful, you can contribute to an environment where people will point fingers at each other and lose their ability to truly learn from the problem. Example of five whys:
Q: Why did we miss our $1M sales target this quarter?
A: We made fewer sales calls than planned.
Q: Why did we make fewer sales calls than planned?
A: We had fewer leads to work this work.
Q: Why did we have fewer leads this month?
A: We sent fewer email outreaches than planned.
Q: Why did we send fewer outreach emails than planned?
A: We were short-staffed.
Q: Why were we short-staffed?
A: We didn’t plan around the fact that two people were on vacation.”
“I tend to lose focus for one of two reasons: exhaustion or distraction. Or both. Sometimes I look to the cold for remedy: a walk in the crisp air, a cold drink, a shower. The shower doesn’t have to be cold; the ceremony itself is kind of a reset button. If it’s exhaustion, I’ll just take a nap or, more recently, meditate.
My friend Adepero likes to ask, ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ That’s a good one.”
“I immediately begin recalling all the things I am grateful for in my life. I start with each of my three sons, my brother, sister, and on to my mother and father. I then allow my thoughts of gratitude to go wherever they go, from the smallest things to the largest. Literally within minutes, the perspective I have about what’s happening in this stressful moment takes a dramatic shift. I become calmer, less panicked, and more measured in my feelings and thinking.”
Disclaimer: Quotes are from the people mentioned and taken out of Tim Ferriss’ book, “Tribe of Mentors”.