The ability to focus closely on a pressing issue is an invaluable skill, especially at work. But what happens when everything seems urgent?
If you find yourself barely able to come up for air during a busy week, some perspective can help you get a better handle on your to-do list. By putting a particular detail in its broader context, you can shed unnecessary worries and see opportunities you might otherwise miss. Here are some strategies to help you step back and level up.
1. Take time to reconnect with your mission
Sometimes all you can do to get through the day is keep your head down and push through your to-do list. And with emails and calls creeping out of the confines of your office and into your evenings, your waking hours can feel cluttered and frenetic. If you’ve noticed that your decision-making tends to be on autopilot, take a few minutes to reconnect with the broader context of your work before jumping into the stream of your routine.
Questions to contemplate include how your specific tasks figure into the mission of your organization. What personal and professional qualities are you cultivating on the job? When we talk about perspective, what we’re really evaluating is the way you look at something. By taking a wider view, you might start to see relationships and opportunities to work with others you would otherwise miss, which could lead to increased connectivity and impact.
2. Follow your awe
What do you find awe-inspiring? Research from the Association of Psychological Science shows that the experience of awe—defined as “the emotion that arises when one encounters something so strikingly vast that it provokes a need to update one’s mental schemas”—can change your perception of time so that you feel like you have more of it during the day, which has an impact on decision making. Whether it’s the beauty of a natural wonder like the Grand Canyon or a contemplation of the age of the universe, these experiences also place your daily life in a stunningly vast context, which can help clarify things.
Broadening your perspective beyond the immediacy of your current situation can make the situation feel more workable. This is something comedian Jerry Seinfeld has an intimate knowledge of, as he’s reported that looking at pictures of outer space helped him calm his nerves in the writers’ room of his eponymous TV show. If you find the vastness of time and space overwhelming, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has some words of advice.
3. Utilize the power of “Yes, and…” thinking
Improv comedians like Tina Fey and Wayne Brady have built careers on getting out of their heads and building on the possibilities in the moment. Each of us has our own habits of mind—things we are reflexively negative about, and the stories we repetitively tell ourselves about what is or isn’t possible. Maybe you don’t apply for certain jobs or pitch ideas at work because you’re sure that it won’t be successful. But there are ways to break out of that sort of thinking.
Taking a nod from improv comedy, you can expand and shift your vision to consider a multitude of possibilities. Using the improv skill of saying “yes, and...” you can accept the concrete reality about a given project or situation and build on it by seeing what can be added, changed, or improved. By using “yes, and...” you can dismantle limiting beliefs that have become habits of mind while cultivating a flexibility that will help you think creatively about future challenges.
4. Notice “all or nothing” thinking
Even if you don’t think of yourself as a perfectionist, you might still fall prey to the tendency to split your perspective into extremes. Maybe this manifests when you procrastinate on an important task because you haven’t quite found the most original approach. Or maybe you tend to view your performance at job interviews as either totally amazing or utterly horrible with absolutely no gray area in between. If you catch yourself using red-flag words like “always” or “never” it’s time to expand your focus.
The best way to deal with this is to push the boundaries of your comfort zone and get messy by being willing to fail. Give yourself permission to have a bad or silly idea. Try journaling about your to-do list, jotting down your thoughts, plans, and desires for your projects. You can even dedicate a notebook or document on your computer to “bad ideas.” This will help you feel less precious about your work, and recognize that even mistakes are necessary stepping stones on the road to eventual success. Maybe you’d prefer to dedicate a full uninterrupted hour to a project you’re working on, but if fifteen minutes is all you’re going to get today, it’s better than not doing it at all.
5. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes
Empathy is a great tool for approaching situations from a new angle. We often forget that our own frame of reference is only one among many. By putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, be it someone else on your team, an interviewer, or a potential client, you’re not only broadening your perspective but also increasing your ability to connect with others in an authentic way.
Even if you work alone, social reasoning can help you gain perspective when you’re having trouble. As Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, says, social reasoning helps us shed light on our personal biases. Our tendency to ignore information that disproves our currently-held notions about people and situations can create a feedback loop, but either imagining or actually listening to someone else’s perspective can help you break out of this echo chamber. So when you’re struggling with a project or task, reach out to a colleague or a friend, practice deep listening, and allow yourself to be surprised.
6. Zoom out, but don’t zone out
As we’ve discussed, looking at the big picture has its benefits, but thinking about long-term possibilities and looking at a decision from all possible angles can create its own type of overwhelm. Once you’ve gained perspective by zooming out, pay attention to which details are important to achieving your goals, and take time to make sure you have sufficient information to make a decision.
The point of gaining perspective isn’t to avoid decision making, but to put your specific idea, problem, or situation in a larger context which could contribute to new approaches and solutions you haven’t considered. Some things are worth your undivided attention, so be careful not to zone out—instead, zoom out with intention.
By Caroline Contillo
If you’re looking for more self-care ideas, be sure to check out our article, Resources for Practicing Self-Care Right Now.