Everyone has days where just getting started is a job in and of itself — whether it’s due to stress, sluggishness, or an ongoing pandemic, there’s a whole world of distractions that can demand our attention and pull us away from the tasks at hand. Unfortunately, we can’t wave a magic wand and send these intrusive forces into the ether, but, with a few techniques from the psychological practice of mindfulness, we can establish a pre-work routine that’ll help us put those thoughts aside for the time being.
Susan M. Pollak, MTS, Ed.D., a psychologist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and author of Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy, describes mindfulness as a judgment-free awareness of the current moment. By emphasizing the importance of remaining present (rather than going down a worry spiral or ruminating on negative thoughts), the practice can diminish the impact that distracting thoughts can have on our everyday lives and provide us with the tools to confront them in the future.
“Mindfulness gives us a more constructive way to deal with [stress] instead of getting angry, anxious, or depressed,” Dr. Pollak says. She compares it to snow tires, in the sense that they won’t make the storm go away but they’ll help us through it more easily.
Here, Dr. Pollak offers four simple ways to make your workdays more intentional — and, in turn, less stressful.
Get grounded in your body.
Sitting at a desk or computer for hours isn’t conducive to feeling good in your body, and it can make it all the more tempting to panic when a troublesome thought (What if my client hates this?) rises to the surface. Dr. Pollak says you can get out of your own head by performing a quick body scan before you start working. Begin with your feet: Are they planted on the ground? Are they warm or cold? Then move up your legs and to your spine: Are you sitting up straight? Are you slouching in a way that’ll leave you sore by the evening? Make your way up to your shoulders, neck, and jaw: Are you holding tension or clenching in these areas? Can you relax and soften your muscles here instead?
Performing this “grounding” practice will help you drop into your body and the current moment with greater ease. And starting the morning with this technique will likely make you more aware of your body and what it needs as the day goes on, which will help you remember not only to take breaks for snacks and exercise but to stop working at a reasonable time.
Establish a gratitude practice.
The COVID-19 pandemic has cast uncertainty over our lives, jobs, and, well, everything. Dr. Pollak says there’s never been a better time to start adding gratitude to your morning routine. It doesn’t have to be extensive or elaborate. It can be as simple as acknowledging what you have to be thankful for when you wake up: the roof over your head, fresh air, the friends and loved ones you can FaceTime later, the fact that you can hear birds outside your window. Even if you can’t come up with much on your first few tries and struggle to look on the bright side, keep it up. “Practice trains our brains; it trains us out of that negative mindset,” Dr. Pollak says.
The next time you feel your anxiety spiking, Dr. Pollak says to imagine two stones, right up against each other, so close that, when one stone moves, the other has no choice but to move, too. “If you’re feeling anxious or depressed, that anxious thought can impact you,” she says. “But you can imagine there’s a gap between the two stones, so one stone moves a little or is agitated, but it doesn’t impact anything else.” In other words, if you can create some distance between you and your stress, you can catch it when it starts to bubble up and put it in perspective before it eclipses everything else on your mind.
Treat yourself with compassion.
It’s rare that stress, anxieties, and worries are totally unfounded — more often than not, they’re based on real challenges that we encounter in our work. Dr. Pollak says it’s important to acknowledge when you’re dealing with a tight deadline or demanding assignment, for example, and to state openly that these are difficult circumstances. This is not an invitation to complain or berate yourself for getting into this situation in the first place. “Yelling at yourself and beating yourself up is not going to help,” Dr. Pollak says. Instead, be kind and reassure yourself that you’re doing your best with the skills, time, and resources you have. You can even break the work down into steps that feel more manageable for you at the moment. Mindfulness, Dr. Pollak says, affords us the chance to befriend ourselves, as long as we’re willing to hear and meet our emotional needs.