Writer and editor of The Startup Elizabeth Dober tells how she expanded her thinking and broke the deadlock with the help of THE CPT
Stress and 70-hour workweeks are a thing of the past because I have learned to apply cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
A 2020 study by the American Psychological Association found that 70% of Americans experienced significantly more stress at work during a pandemic. Personally, my stress levels increased because I had to work from home.
Due to the inability to communicate normally with colleagues and the lack of clear boundaries between work and family life, my 35-hour workweek soon grew to a crazy 70 hours. Moreover, the longer I worked, the less I was able to do it.
The desire to be more productive and less nervous
Over the next month, I've tried a variety of ways to manage time and increase productivity, including "Eat a Frog" and "Pomodoro" methods. Many of my friends successfully use them, but in me, they have only increased the negative attitude to work.
The selection of temporary blocks caused only more stress, and the performance of unpleasant things at the beginning of the day spoiled the mood. I wanted to be more productive, but I also wanted to be less nervous and enjoy what I was doing. However, it seemed to me that I was in a vicious circle, from which there is no way out.
Around the same time, I was sent a book to review the science of life. Looking through it at the end of a long day, I came across a performance study that seemed to be solving my problems.
The book stated that out of 400 volunteers, people with positive thinking completed the task faster than those who thought negatively. This correlates with previous studies showing that people with positive thinking have a broader outlook and are therefore better at finding opportunities. And people with a negative mind are so narrowly focused that they see only one limited way to accomplish the task.
That's why I knew why I was in a quandary. Negative thinking so narrowed my focus that I couldn't find a better way to work. Unsurprisingly, the performance techniques didn't help me in any way, because I was trying to change my behavior, and I had to change my mindset.
Finding a solution
After doing a serious online study, I realized that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) could help me. It is usually used to treat anxiety and depression, but it is also suitable for many other conditions and situations. Here are its key principles:
The CBT clearly demonstrates how negative thoughts lead to negative actions. This was exactly the situation in which I found myself: negative thoughts about work forced me to behave appropriately - for example, arguing with colleagues and inefficiently planning the day.
The CBT is different from other types of therapy because it is aimed at solving current problems rather than past ones. My problem was current, it only arose because of the need to work from home.
The CBT is well-equipped to find solutions to problems in a short period of time. I didn't know how long I could last, so it was important for me to improve the situation in a few weeks.
Problems are broken down into managed blocks and solved in stages. I liked the idea that you can start with small changes and develop them every week, moving towards the ultimate goal.
Studies have shown the effectiveness of self-treatment of anxiety and depression using CBT. And while continuing to apply the mastered methods, participants noted longer improvements.
Of course, if you feel that you can't cope with strong emotions and negative ways of thinking alone, it is wise to ask for professional help. I had six online sessions with a therapist because I felt I needed more support.
I want to touch on the toxic positive - the belief that a person should always strive for a positive outlook, regardless of the situation. This usually means that negative feelings are not taken into account and are hidden by external positivity.
The CBT does not force to be positive. The therapy is aimed at eliminating negative feelings that interfere with a person. For example, self-sabotage can affect performance. But you can identify and destroy negative thinking stereotypes by realizing why you feel just that. There are useful and useless ways to react, and CBT encourages you to think about whether your thoughts are changing or not.
Here are four steps that help change your thinking and become more productive. But I want to emphasize that this is only my opinion. I'm not a qualified therapist, and this plan is not a professional course of cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Step 1. Identify patterns of negative thinking
Write down your thoughts on work (tasks, situations, time), people (colleagues, managers, clients), and leisure (rest, hobbies, time). Try not to censor your thoughts: the more honest you are, the better.
Here are some of the key negative thinking stereotypes I've had:
My supervisor did not set up an environment for productive and sustainable remote work. His "flexibility" in terms of working hours means that many employees are unavailable during the day, which forces me to work in the evenings and on weekends. I believe that some colleagues are using this "flexibility" as an excuse to get away with it.
The more I work, the angrier I am, knowing that I would be better off if the manager set a reasonable schedule. I'm also upset by the downtime. Waiting for data to load or virtual meetings that I'm not interested in is a waste of time. My stress levels go up when I see time go by and my to-do list doesn't shrink.
Lack of the equipment needed to do the job as normal. For example, in the office, I have two large computer monitors, and at home - only a laptop, and because of this now some tasks take twice as long. I get annoyed before I even take on them because I know it could have been done much faster.
Also, I am always in work mode, which means that there is simply no free time. What used to relax, such as a walk or taking a bath, is now another opportunity to ponder working problems. And I gave up my favorite things because I'm only more nervous in the end. It's the same with going to bed, I can't sleep until I change my mind about all the work.
The therapist advised me to carefully study the daily routine and pay attention to those moments when I make generalizations like "I don't like work" or "colleagues annoy me". As can be seen from the four items on the list, my main problems are the lack of structure, too much downtime, slow equipment, and poor work-life balance.
It is clear that my negative thinking caused negative emotions, and this led to negative behavior. If you find similar thoughts during this exercise, you'll need the next steps.
Step 2: Cognitive Rethinking
At this stage, you need to track the way of thinking and determine whether it is useful or not. That's how I reasoned.
My current thoughts
My manager is incompetent and doesn't see that by allowing employees to work whenever they want, he has created chaos. Because of this, I have to quarrel with colleagues and work longer.
How would it be better?
Create a structure where everyone works from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Is there any reason why this won't work?
Colleagues who have children or other responsibilities would find this difficult or impossible.
Is there a solution that suits everyone?
No, I think it is impossible to create a routine that everyone would like because everyone is in different situations now.
What do you think about the situation now?
My manager faced an impossible task, and now I understand why he chose a "flexible" approach. I understand that many of my colleagues are not coping like me, and there is no point in arguing with them. While I still believe that one or two employees are just taking advantage of the situation, it is not for me to judge them.
As you can see, when the therapist questioned my attitudes, I realized that these thought models were useless. I saw the situation more widely and became less angry with the boss and colleagues. I also felt free of the situation and able to take control of it.
I worked through all my negative thoughts and found that they were useless, even though the problems did exist. For example, the lack of equipment actually slowed me down, but anger did not solve this issue. It is important to remember that there is no need to say that there is no problem, we need to find a more effective way to solve it.
Step 3: A consistent approximation
This is the goal planning step, where you break down problems into smaller parts and consistently do the right thing.
For example, the increase in workload makes you negative about your boss and your job, and because of that, you even have doubts about whether you like the process itself. You are in a hurry, you try to do everything, but because of stress, you make mistakes more often.
But the boss may not realize that the workload is uncontrollable. Instead of suffering or quitting your job, take the following positive steps to solve the problem:
Create a spreadsheet detailing all the tasks you need to complete in a week and the time it takes to complete each one.
Set up a meeting with the manager to show him the table and explain that the workload is too high. Agree on a decision.
Continue to keep track of your workload after any changes for the next two weeks. Reducing errors is another way to find out if you're doing a better job.
Plan a second meeting with your boss at the end of two weeks to discuss whether the changes have helped and, if not, what else can be thought of.
The goals of the CPT should always be SMART (concrete, measurable, achievable, relevant, with certain deadlines). The example above is the SMART target.
In my situation, many of the problems were either related or one solution automatically solved the other. So I agreed with my therapist that six weeks would be enough to achieve my ultimate goal of a 35-hour workweek.
Here are some useful points:
There will always be more work than hours in a day. Realizing this is the first step to setting the line between work and family life and creating a routine that you like.
Focus on what you can control, not what you can't control.
Creating a schedule that takes into account uncertainty is a good approach when the workload is affected by things that are beyond your control.
It is important to understand what pressure you are experiencing, either internal or external. Internal pressure can be unreasonable, and it's worth asking if you're too violent to yourself. External pressure can be reduced by talking openly with managers and/or colleagues about schedule and workload, as well as what can be controlled.
With these moments in mind and my ultimate goal, I've looked at ways to implement positive change. That's just one area -- the work schedule -- that needed improvement and the way I broke it down into mini-actions.
The biggest problem for me is working in the evenings and weekends because of the need to contact other employees who are unavailable during the working day. But, as it turned out, it is necessary for urgent tasks, and they now generally have flexible terms. So there's no real reason why I can't just email my colleagues and wait for a response.
In the beginning, when I first started working from home, the main problem was that some employees did not answer me for several days, if not weeks. This fueled the need to work in the evenings and on weekends. Returning to work from 9 to 17 should not have a bad impact on me, as I honestly work out the time required under the contract.
However, my boss and colleagues are already used to the idea that I am always in touch, and this problem also needs to be solved.
Stage one: let everyone know that I work from 9 to 17, and outside of that time I will be unavailable.
Stage two: create a spreadsheet of all tasks, including communications and deadlines. This is to restore order and get rid of the need to remember everything I'm working on. In addition, it will record all the reasons why the tasks were postponed unnecessarily, and show how actively I have sought a solution. Entries can be used as evidence if there is a problem with missed deadlines.
Stage three: After a month or earlier, if necessary, inform the manager of any serious problems in the performance of tasks and missed deadlines so that he can contact those involved and find a suitable solution for all involved.
Step 4: Activation of Behavior
Activating behavior will bring many pleasant moments because positive thinking will help you to look at the situation from a positive rather than a negative side.
I said that I had given up all pleasant activities because they did not have time, and much of what used to give pleasure, now made me more nervous.
After a discussion with the therapist, it was decided to bring the reading back into my life. The plan was to read every evening at a certain time, and whenever thoughts dissipate, read the text more carefully.
Find something for yourself that will encourage more positive thinking. Often, breathing techniques, mindfulness, or meditation are recommended as ways of relaxation, but in my situation, they did not fit, as I struggled to disconnect from work, and all this only made me think even more about it.
Make it happen
Having discovered useless patterns of thinking and learning how to rethink them, I already felt much more positive. I also had a strong SMART goal, which I was sure of.
Every day I worked on one task that helped to achieve the ultimate goal.
I was surprised how simple changes in thinking helped improve mood. For example, now I treat downtime as an opportunity to relax. Instead of sitting in front of the screen and getting angry watching the data load, I take the opportunity to stretch my legs or just give rest to my eyes. This increases the positive attitude and allows you to enthusiastically take on the next task.
In the third week, I had another session of cognitive behavioral therapy, and I discussed with the therapist other ways to disconnect from work because I felt that working from home, I could never fully draw the line between work and rest. My therapist suggested that a fictitious trip to work would help me.
In the fourth week, I added an imitation of a trip to work - a 15-minute walk during which I could ponder the coming evening. When I returned home, I felt that I had mentally disconnected from my business and was ready to relax.
In the fifth week, I decided to add a 15-minute analysis of the work at the end of each day to see my achievements and finish the day in a positive way. It also helped me to make a to-do list the next day so as not to waste my free time on these thoughts.
Of course, nothing changed overnight. The feeling that I had to work harder was constantly present. I've found that keeping a diary helps a lot to gather thoughts in a heap and rethink them in a more positive light. In addition, I put the CPT plan next to the work laptop and it reminded me that I was working on improving my work-life balance.
Free time became a problem because of isolation I could not do many ordinary things. It was easier to fill this time with work, so I had to constantly remind myself that it was not conducive to achieving the ultimate goal. Keeping a diary and reading notes on the CBT helped me not to go astray.
Around the same time, I became a vegetarian, and some of my free time began to go into finding recipes and cooking healthy food.
After the CBT
It's been a little over six months since I completed THE CT, and my life now looks completely different.
I reached my goal of a 35-hour workweek in less than six weeks. The combination of positive thinking and SMART goals allowed me to find ways to better manage my time and work more productively. At the beginning of cognitive behavioral therapy sessions, I didn't believe that it was possible to see such huge changes in such a short period of time, but thanks to a simple step-by-step plan, my goal was manageable and achievable.
In addition, I now have extensive knowledge of how to deal with negative thoughts in the future and in all areas of my life, and this gives me confidence that if I ever get back into the cycle of negative thoughts, I will be able to get out of it.
Now I have a quote from Dr. Wayne Dyer on my wall that says:
"If you change your way, what you're looking at will change."
It always makes me smile because it reminds me that changing my mindset can really change my life for the better.