Strategies for Coping at Work
By Deepak Chopra, MD
As tragic as the COVID pandemic has been, when it shook up our norms of daily life, it also opened new possibilities. The 2020 lockdown forced many people to work from home, a trend that is continuing. Returning to the office is now a choice more than ever before. As long as this has become an important issue, this is a good time to consider the issue of how to cope at work.
More strategies are opening up than ever before, along with a resistance to putting up with the stresses that seemed normal before COVID. Major crises didn’t usually dominate the work day in the past. Instead, there was a stream of situations, challenges, demands, and duties that consumed our time, and still do. As a result we’ve become a nation of highly productive people who bring work home and rarely have the luxury of a forty-hour week. This much is clear.
But the stream of daily challenges and demands also consumes something else: awareness. You want to be alert and focused at work, but to stay that way takes a set of coping skills. Most people haven’t paid attention to this need, and their range of coping skills is limited. Better coping skills will leave you more time to think and the mental space to think better.
A coping skill is anything that keeps you from being psychologically and mentally drained. Even without a crisis to deal with, the average work day can overwhelm your mental reserves. When someone is overwhelmed by daily pressures, here are the common reasons for it:
- Taking on too much responsibility.
- Trying to exert too much control.
- Micromanaging, treating the small stuff as if it’s big stuff.
- Performance anxiety, i.e., worrying about what can go wrong.
- Demanding too much of your mental energy.
- Allocating time in inefficient ways.
You may not have looked at these as coping problems, but they are. Each one is a response to stress and pressure. To prove this to yourself, look at how you approach a hobby that you love. The pressure is off, and that means no micromanaging, exerting too much control, or making excessive demands on your mental energy. If you can merge how you approach a hobby with how you approach work, you have made a step toward better coping.
In hobby mode, you’ll notice that you handle things in the following way:
- Being relaxed.
- Having fun.
- Enjoying yourself.
- Feeling no pressure.
- Appreciating the steps that get you to your goal.
- Immersing yourself in the process.
- Being focused and centered at the same time.
This mental framework comes naturally when you are gardening, sailing, or making a cabinet. Transferring it to the workplace takes skill; you must consciously apply yourself to developing a better way of coping. The difference at work is the addition of stress, from other people, deadlines, and various kinds of personal interactions. Such stresses aren’t intentional on the whole. They pile up at the workplace little by little as the day goes on.
I realize that some hobbies, like playing softball on the weekend or entering a chess tournament, can be just as pressured and stressful as work. But the point is to recognize your ability to be in two different states of awareness, work and play. Once you recognize them, you can choose which one to be in. The job doesn’t force you to be stressed. Staying unconscious does, because you can’t change what you aren’t aware of.
There is also the larger issue of avoiding the mistakes that cause careers to go awry in the long term. The three biggest mistakes are
1. Setting your expectations too low.
2. Feeling that you have to be certain.
3. Not seeing how much you will grow.
Let me explain each one, although in the end they are intimately connected.
Mistake #1: Low expectations
There are a few people gifted with roaring self-confidence who expect to conquer the world. But most people are unsure of themselves and uncertain. They want to feel safe, and they think that by lowering their expectations, a sense of security will come to them. It isn’t true. Setting your expectations too low traps you into jobs that have a low possibility of expanding into anything worthwhile. For every copy boy who becomes editor of the newspaper, every tour guide in Hollywood who sells a blockbuster script, there are hundreds more who remain stuck in those jobs. It’s not really the job that keeps anyone stuck; it’s the psychological limitation of setting your expectations too low.
Mistake #2: The Trap of Certainty
Life is uncertain, and the vast majority of people feel so uneasy about this that they seize on certainty when they shouldn’t. They follow the opinions of the people around them, go to work where they are expected to, and only feel secure when they fit in. Yet real success is built upon making peace with uncertainty, turning the unknown into a field of creative possibilities. Personal uncertainty is hard, undoubtedly. It takes a conscious effort to place yourself in a position where it’s okay that things are open-ended. but if you don’t, the alternative is being in a position that’s closed off.
Mistake #3: Neglecting Growth
Most job interviews follow the same pattern, where the applicant tries to prove, even before setting foot in the door, that he knows how to handle the job. This ritual is empty, a piece of drama that’s supposed to show confidence. In reality, great careers are built on growth. Seeing your own potential to grow isn’t easy, especially when you are young. but it’s a mistake not to see that you will grow, meaning that your future self, although out of reach, has an enormous amount to offer. What you can do today, what you know and how far you can see — this is all provisional, awaiting the mysterious process of growth.
What ties these three mistakes together is everyone’s inability to predict who they will be in the future. Insecurity, anxiety, and the pressure to hold a job are powerful forces. They tempt us into believing that we will always feel what we feel now, always think the way we do now, always see the world through the lens of the present. The need to feel secure is what gets most people into trouble, which is why the three big career mistakes are so prevalent.
The way to avoid these pitfalls is by working on your core beliefs, exchanging the ones that hold you back for ones that meet the future without anxiety. If you can do that, starting with small steps, the legacy of COVID can be a future better than you ever anticipated.
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. The World Post and The Huffington Post global internet survey ranked Chopra #17 influential thinker in the world and #1 in Medicine. Chopra is the author of more than 80 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest books are Super Genes co-authored with Rudolph Tanzi, PhD and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. www.deepakchopra.com