Have you ever had one of those days when things aren’t going your way? Recently, I had a day that, right from the beginning, felt completely off. That day, everything seemed more difficult — people weren’t listening to me, and I was running behind with way too much to do and I hadn’t even finished my first cup of coffee. I could feel my sense of urgency increasing and, with it, my patience plummeting. Under the false belief that working faster would improve things, I started to get short with my youngest daughter as she was trying to get out the door for school. My mind was racing as I was simultaneously trying to interact with her while processing my mental list of about a half dozen things that I had to do as soon as possible — emails to respond to, an agenda for an upcoming meeting I had in 30 minutes, phone calls to make, kids picked up from school. It was a bad start to the day and it was only 8:30 a.m.
In previous articles, I’ve talked about how an increase in stress decreases our ability to think clearly, listen well and manage our emotions. With increased stress, we tend to focus on tasks at the expense of relationships. The key to coping and minimizing the adverse effects of stress is to improve self-awareness so we can catch ourselves when we sense we’re getting stressed. Once we catch ourselves, we need to know what to do to manage the stress. At Think2Perform, one of the tools we use to teach executives and athletes how to increase self-awareness is called the “freeze exercise.” We ask them to “freeze” — to simply stop everything and notice what they are thinking, feeling and doing.
Why don’t you try it right now? Stop reading this column for a few seconds and pay attention to your thoughts, feelings and actions.
As you begin to pay attention and identify what’s going on, you may be surprised at the thoughts and feelings you were unconsciously experiencing. You may find that those thoughts and feelings are not consistent with whatever it was you were doing (reading this article). When we are physically present yet mentally or emotionally absent, our performance suffers.
Why is it so important to increase our self-awareness?
• Awareness of our thoughts: Human beings are linear thinkers; regardless of our IQ, we think one thought at a time. So smart people don’t think more thoughts, they just have smarter thoughts and ask themselves different questions. Self-awareness, awareness of our thoughts and knowing what we’re thinking sets the stage for choosing to think in ways that promote better decisions.
• Awareness of our emotions: Emotions are real and aren’t necessarily good or bad. Our feelings can be positive or negative and either high or low energy. What makes our emotions good or bad is how we act and how we behave based on those feelings.
• Awareness of our actions: Actions or behaviors are either voluntary or involuntary. For example, while speaking is voluntary, breathing is involuntary. We don’t decide whether or not to breathe, but we can choose what to say, what decisions we make and how we act around others.
Recognize what’s going on
Always thinking, always feeling, always doing or acting is the essence of the human experience. Actually, it’s impossible not to have a thought or an emotion. Yet, it’s common for us to be unaware of what we’re thinking or how we’re feeling. This lack of awareness is what creates trouble for us. Freezing helps us recognize what’s going on internally and allows us to see how we may be showing those internal feelings to others. As we increase our self-awareness, we minimize the unconscious actions and, instead, consciously decide our behavior and choose what we want to display to others.
We perform at our best when we are physically, mentally and emotionally present. Athletes call this being “in the zone.” But peak performance isn’t all about athletics — we also strive for it in our personal and professional lives. At Think2Perform, we teach doctors and nurses to play the freeze game during surgery. Why? Because one of the biggest risks in surgery is a distracted surgical team that could potentially work on the wrong body part or perform an incorrect procedure. If you’re on the operating table, then you certainly want your surgical team’s full attention focused directly on you. Freezing prior to the procedure, gets the surgical team in the zone and fully attentive to the task at hand.
So on that difficult morning as I was practicing my own freeze moment, I decided that being stressed wasn’t how I wanted to act with my daughter and certainly wasn’t going to increase my effectiveness at work. Instead, I chose to calm myself down, took a few deep breaths, reminded myself of my values and thought about the bigger picture. I decided to take control of how I was dealing with my day. Taking control is a decision we all get to make if we choose to pay attention to our own experience.
How about you? What have you learned about how to deal with stressful situations? What techniques or tools do you use that help you make a shift your behavior?
Chuck Wachendorfer is a partner and the chief operating officer at Think2Perform, a business and sports performance firm that improves bottom-line results for executives, athletes and organizations. He resides in Edwards with his wife, Lori, and their three children. Think2Perform is a partner of the Vail Chamber and Business Association. They offer a series of “Breakthrough for Business” workshops throughout the year, helping local businesses achieve their best practices. To learn more visit www.vailchamber.org or www.think2perform.com.