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Are you making it harder for yourself to work?

Yesterday, I walked home and it was raining. I wasn’t happy, I was getting soaked. I was slouching and my mood got gloomier with every step. Then I caught myself. It was just rain. I thought to myself, remember that time you walked 3 hours in rain? You survived, didn’t you? Your clothes dried during the next 7 hours of walking, didn’t they? I squared my shoulders and looked up. Why get myself down because of water coming down from the sky? Besides, I had waterproof jacket with me.

Our brain has evolved to make us survive and look for danger, and negativity leads to vigilance, which helps us stay alive. But if you are fortunate enough to read this on your screen, survival is a given. Happiness is the next goal. Since there is already enough negativity in the world, I want to do my part to be as positive as a sane person can be and help you too. With that, I’ll look at an area that typically has at least some negativity, stress, or anxiety associated with it — work.

“Work smart, not hard,” is one of those sayings constantly being shared around the web. To me, the saying seems to imply that you either work smart, or you work hard. Moreover, any time I read it, I wonder: Am I working hard needlessly? Is what I’m doing smart?

That’s not helpful. Can a person simply work? Let me tell you what I mean.

A friend of my dad once said:

“When I don’t want to do something, I do it so that I know why I don’t want to.”

When we don’t want to do something, we may tell ourselves that it’s going to be hard, tedious, or boring. I’ll give a specific example.

Responding to emails is not particularly enjoyable for me. It often goes like this: I read an email, there is a decision I have to make, I close the email, mark it as unread, and go do something else.

The problem is that now the email is sitting in the back of my mind swinging its legs aimlessly, occasionally shouting at me to get my attention when I’m doing other work. It’s not terribly pleasant. I have to reply at some point soon. Meanwhile, the email is in the back of my mind, using a slice of my mental-resource cake. Research confirms that tasks in the back of our minds take up a portion of our working memory. So, if there are 15 things there, not much mental capacity is left to do something worthwhile. How do we avoid that?

I finally reply to the email at hand. Did it hurt? No. Did it take less than 3 minutes? Yes. So, I ask myself, what was the mental fuss about?

I told myself that sending an email was tedious. I told myself it was effortful. I decided to view email negatively, and my brain obeyed. If I believe that email is unpleasant, it will become even more so. These stories we tell ourselves build up the negativity around an idea in our minds and make it more difficult to deal with than it otherwise would have been.

Broadly speaking, if you tell yourself that your work is hard, it will only become harder. Your brain will suddenly pay more attention to the aspects of the work that you dislike and reinforce that idea of it being difficult or unpleasant. Then, if you hear “work smart, not hard”, and the work you do doesn’t seem too smart, it will further reinforce the negativity. You will attach negative value to the tasks that may take only a moment. As a consequence of that, you will need more will and self-control to get yourself to do the work.

The thing is, exerting will and self-control costs us mental energy too. When we’re low on energy, it’s harder to control ourselves. When you’re totally famished and you see food that you know is terrible for you, you’ll most likely go for it. The reason is that you don’t have the energy to restrain yourself. You go for anything edible within your reach because you need the energy in it. The same energy that will enable you to control yourself more, or push yourself to do some work.

So, if clouds of negativity gather in your mind around the idea of work, it will demand more energy to do it and so the brain will try to avoid it altogether. Fortunately, we can disperse those negative clouds. Here’s how.

Today, I sent the responses right after reading the emails. Guess what? It wasn’t painful. Afterwards, I reminded myself that it was not painful to reinforce that idea. Do it with your work too. Look at something that you’re not looking forward to doing, and ask yourself why. Then look at the why’s and examine whether they are sensible. Even if they are, avoid telling yourself things like:

“It’ll be boring” “It’s going to be hard” “I’m not going to enjoy it” “It’s going to be tedious” “Why do I have to do this…”

Instead, choose to frame work as positive. In my particular case, the reframing sounded like:

“just a few sentences” “just a couple minutes” “just a few clicks”

And maybe add:

“Is it really that hard?”

The words we choose for our inner narratives matter. Don’t speak to yourself as yourself. Imagine that you are having a conversation with your boss. Would you tell your boss that something’s going to be hard, boring, and tedious? Probably not. Don’t tell that to yourself either.

Watch out for the negativity clouds the second they’re forming in your mind and stop them from darkening your day.