14 May 2014

How do we learn to not sweat the small stuff?

Some people know it naturally, some never get it, and the rest of us have the best teachers in the world – small children!

I spent  the first week of our recent school holidays around a lot of small children and their parents, with a brilliant opportunity to observe in a real world ‘laboratory’.

Although I raised six children myself, once they’re off your hands you do tend to forget the day-to-day mini melodramas; the life-shattering distress when a favourite toy can’t be found; the anxieties when an unexpected dog comes too close; the high drama of being left behind by the big kids; the frustrations of not being understood by the tall people around you.

The adult world has its own variations of the same theme. Our computer has a bad hair day; we’ve lost the c83405368_620x310ar keys and our car is blocking someone else’s; we suspect the boss doesn’t appreciate how hard we’ve tried to sort out a problem; we wish the person sitting next to us wouldn’t talk so loudly on the phone; our favourite café is closed for renovations and the next one is five minutes away.

Life is full of minor irritations. Or we could say that life is full of opportunities to practice objectivity.Here are some strategies we can learn from hanging out with little people.

Whatever you focus on will dominate

Child world: One day one of my toddlers fell over on the concrete floor of the butcher’s shop, slightly grazed his knee and started to cry. Quick as a flash Mr Renshaw was round the counter, pointing at a mark on the floor. ‘Oh no, look at the floor. You’re so strong you’ve made a hole in it!’ Fascinated, the small boy peered down at the floor, the knee was forgotten and the crying stopped. The shift in focus worked brilliantly.

Adult world: Your computer is taking too long to load, or some other low-level inconvenience. It’s easy to become myopic, to sit there staring at the screen and clicking impatiently.  Instead of becoming more intensely focused on the nuisance, stand up and move. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’ve shifted your physical body for a moment. As soon as we shift our focus, other possibilities show up.  Other ways of using those minutes come to mind. And then we’re better able to see the issue as the minor irritation it really is.

Give options instead of commands

Child world: Your child mucks around in the morning instead of quickly getting ready for school. ‘Do you want Weetbix or muesli?’ instead of ‘Stop playing and go and get your breakfast.’  Their thinking changes direction to the either/or options instead of resisting the command to stop what they’re enjoying.

Or: Instead of ‘Go and do the dishes, kids’, how about ‘Who’s going to wash?’

Adult world: You’ve got a new staff member who’s struggling with their scheduling. You want to help them allocate their time better, without appearing to be unnecessarily directive. Instead of saying, ‘Go and work on … task’ you could say ‘Which task do you think is going to give you the highest payback?’

 Does it really matter?

Child world: Four small grandchildren had just been returned to their parents after a few days’ holiday with me. The next day, as I sat having a cup of coffee with a friend, the morning sun lit up a long line of sticky finger prints on the picture windows right in our eye range.

‘Oh, sorry about the dirty windows,’ I apologised.

‘Those are not dirty windows,’ my wise friend replied. ‘They’re love marks – and you must never apologise for them. You’re a lucky woman to have little people in your life. You’ll have plenty of time to have an immaculate house when they’re not around.’

Adult world:Here’s where the 80/20 rule kicks in. Of course we should aim to do a good job on the work we turn out, but what really matters in this task? What is an acceptable standard? Must we have a perfectly formatted email or will a quick note do?  Do the internal file notes have to be as immaculate as the communication to the client? Can we reduce the details in this instruction without compromising the result? Are there really any serious consequences if we work on high-value work for the first hour of the day instead of checking our email first?

I’ve repeatedly noticed over my 22 years of working in this field of productivity that many who focus on perfection will not only stress themselves about their work load but will also be known as procrastinators. Perfectionism and procrastination are very cosy bed-fellows.

Focus on what matters and don’t sweat the small stuff.

4 thoughts on “How do we learn to not sweat the small stuff?”

  1. Carron Stevenson says:

    Awesome post Robyn. It’s a relief to know that the imperfect person I am is OK. It is so liberating. I’m doing my best to kick out those two bedfellows.

  2. Gareth Greenslade says:

    First: great post. I love the idea of the kids’ finger marks!

    Second: perfectionism and procrastination are cosy bedfellows, but also costly bedfellows!

    In my chronic pain clinic we spend a lot of time dealing with perfectionism, because people with chronic pain have much more limited energy reserves than those who are lucky enough not to have pain. The trouble is they often squander their limited energy on silly perfectionism and then have nothing left for the things that really matter and the things they might enjoy!

    Same problem, different scale!

  3. Robyn Pearce says:

    Gareth, that’s a great insight about the impact of perfectionism with your chronic pain patients. I didn’t know about that angle!

    I’m sure there are many complex factors and reasons for extreme pain and I don’t mean to trivialise the issue. But I’m wondering – which is the chicken and which is the egg? Do you know if there’s any correlation between their perfectionist traits and their medical conditions?

    As a general philosophy, whatever we focus on enlarges. If someone’s focus is constantly on what’s not working – both in day-to-day details as well as their pain, do you think that will heighten the pain experience?

  4. Damien G says:

    Really loved this article thanks Robyn, very helpful. I’m just wondering what it’s meant by the 80/20 rule though as it sounds quite interesting and good to keep in mind.

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