The ability to focus closely on a pressing issue is an invaluable asset. But what happens when everything seems urgent?
If you’re fixating on the memory of your phone ringing in the middle of a job interview or find yourself barely able to come up for air during a busy week, getting some perspective can help. By putting a 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.
Take time to connect 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 pouring out of the confines of your office and into your evenings, your waking hours can feel cluttered and frenetic. If you’ve noticed that you tend to be on autopilot, take a few minutes to connect 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 the 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 bird’s eye view, you might start to see relationships you would otherwise miss, which could lead to increased connectivity and impact.
Follow your awe
What do you find awe-inspiring? Research from Stanford University shows that the experience of awe can change your perception of time so that you feel like you have more time in 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 life in a stunningly vast context, which can help clarify things.
Broadening your perspective beyond the immediacy of your current situation can make it feel more workable. This is something comedian Jerry Seinfeld knows, 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 cosmic proportions.
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. There are the 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 certain ideas because you’re certain that it won’t work, or will be ignored.
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” to a situation, you accept the concrete reality about something, but build on it by zooming out and seeing what can be added. By asking “yes, and?” about any of the things you take for granted about your career, you can dismantle limiting beliefs while cultivating a flexibility of mind that will help you think creatively about future challenges.
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 grey area in between. If you catch yourself using red flag words like “always” or “never” it’s time to expand your focus to include the many shades of gray.
The best way to deal with this is to push the boundaries of your comfort zone and get messy by being willing to fail. Maybe you’d prefer to dedicate a full interrupted 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.
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 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 you’re increasing your ability to connect with others in an authentic way.
Even if you work alone, social reasoning can help. One way, describes Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, is by helping shed light on our personal “confirmation bias.” This tendency to ignore information that disproves our currently held notions about a situation can create a sort of closed loop, but either imagining or actually listening to someone else’s perspective can help you break out of this echo chamber. So ask a colleague or a friend, practice deeply listening to their take and allow yourself to be surprised.
Don’t zone out, zoom out
Looking at the big picture certainly has its benefits, but details and focus are still important. Thinking about long - term possibilities and looking at a decision from all possible angles can create its own type of overwhelm. Remember that looking at the big picture doesn’t need to obscure the important details, you just want to remember that no individual detail exists in a vacuum. Use the opportunity to figure out which details matter for your current goals, and take time to make sure you have sufficient information to make a decision.
The point of zooming out isn’t to avoid decisions entirely, but to put your specific idea, problem, or situation in a larger context which could contribute to new approaches you hadn’t considered. Some things are worth your undivided attention, so don’t zone out, but zoom with an intention.
Make sure to check out Dylan Manderlink’s experience of taking a broader perspective of her career to manage feeling overwhelmed.
By Caroline Contillo