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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

How to Make Something Productive Out of Your Anxiety

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As an executive coach, I often work with clients who don’t just have very full plates; it can feel to them like they’re spinning four or five full plates at once. (That sounds really messy.) When you’ve got so much to do that it’s hard just to keep track of what’s on the list, it’s really easy to start freaking out about how you are going to get everything done. The more professional term for that freaked out feeling is anxiety. When you have anxiety, you feel anxious. When you feel anxious, it’s really hard to keep the plates spinning. It’s actually really challenging to do anything productive from an anxious state.

The French philosopher Montaigne captured the essence of the anxiety challenge when he wrote that “My life has been full of misfortunes, most of which never happened.” We can get so spun up about what might happen that we don’t perform at our best right now. What if you could use your anxiety as a cue or signal to shift into a more productive mode? Here are some thoughts on how to do that.

A couple of weeks ago, I was teaching in the leadership coaching program at Georgetown University and we were talking about coaching in the emotional domain and how emotions relate to time frames. For example, if you’re feeling sad or regretful, that’s usually about something that happened in the past. If you’re feeling angry or excited, those are usually emotions related to what’s happening right now. If you’re feeling anxious, it’s usually about the future and what might happen.

When you feel anxious, it’s natural to start projecting or even catastrophizing about how you’re going to get everything done that needs to get done. If the process in front of you seems to require 100 steps, the natural response is to try to figure out every step all the way out to 98, 99 and 100. The problem with that, of course, is that by the time you get to step 98 in real time, the situation will have changed so much anyway that the 98th step looks nothing like what you imagined or feared it might look like during your projection out.

Gandhi wrote that, “In regards to every action, one must know the result that is expected to follow.” He wasn’t arguing that you should try to solve for 100 percent or that you should even know what the 100 percent solution would look like. I think what he was advocating is that you should be intentional about how the actions you take—starting with Step 1, Step 2, Step 3—could eventually lead to a positive outcome. Again, you have little to no control today over the conditions that will be in place by the time you get to Step 98 so why waste energy being anxious about that today? Have a clear picture in mind of the outcome you’re trying to create and take a step or two today that moves you in the direction of that outcome.

So, the next time you notice yourself feeling anxious, use that as a cue to calm yourself by taking three deep breaths from your belly and then asking, “What’s one step I can take today that will help lead to a positive outcome?”

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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