Beside me on my desk at all times is a pad of sticky notes, which was the size of a Rubik’s cube when I bought it. Now it’s the size of a Melba Toast.
Whenever I think of something I might have to deal with, I write it down on one of these squares. The sheets alternate yellow and hot pink, so my inbox always looks like a tropical salad.
Every few days I process these little notes, which means I look at what I’ve written and decide what to do about it. Sometimes I neglect this duty for a while, and end up with a week’s worth (or two) of sticky notes.
I end up throwing most of them right into the recycling bin, because when it comes time to look at it, the thing I wrote down is no longer relevant, or I’ve already done it, or I don’t feel like anything has to be done about it.
Yet almost all of those notes were scrawled in a moment when I felt some kind of urgency or worry about something, as if my life was suddenly becoming more difficult. I have to ______! I need a new ______! What am I going to do about _____?!
We have these kinds of moments all the time. Things are going fine, and then they’re not, because you think of something you might have to deal with. The moment goes a bit dark. You wish you hadn’t thought of it. Another thing on your plate.
Problems emerge like that: a mental tapping on the shoulder, and a darkening of the emotions. I’ve become really interested in the exact moment this reaction happens, and watching what physical feelings creep in. It almost always does something to the body: the jaw hardens, the skin flushes, or a pit grows below the ribcage.
In those moments, it can be easy to forget (assuming you realize this in the first place) that most of these apparent problems will never have to be solved. They’ll never ripen into real-life dilemmas that require anything difficult from you. Chances are they’ll be sticky notes in the bin at the end of the week (if you’re organized enough to write them down.)
Over and over and over in my life, things that I think will be a big problem turn out not to be. Something else happens instead. Or, a moment I’m dreading comes and goes and it’s not that bad.
Most of the time, the only difficulty posed by a problem is dealing with the moment in which it occurs to you that you might have a problem. After watching thousands of my worries go straight to the bin, I’m getting better at noticing the “shoulder tap” when it happens, and reminding myself that this problem probably isn’t a problem.
Most problems never become real-life dilemmas for a very simple reason. Our minds work many times faster than real life does. In a single minute, your thoughts can jump between a dozen or more concerns:
- The car is making a weird noise. I think.
- There was something I was supposed to buy — what was it?
- How will I know whether to do X or Y when the time comes?
- I really need to establish a regular laundry day.
- Oh crap, I have that thing tomorrow, and I hate mingling.
- I have no idea if I’m saving enough for retirement. Probably not.
But one minute of actual life contains a lot less content than that. It doesn’t demand all that rapid gear-shifting. Real life only shows up one moment at a time. One thing on your plate.
Your mind tells you there is a problem whenever it detects a somewhat possible unpleasant future experience, which it can do all day, and it happily will if you don’t call its bluff. Of course there’s an infinite supply of potential disasters. These are just thoughts, but they seem like realities, and any one of them can create an emotional pitfall now no matter what actually happens later.
Each of these apparent problems represents itself as something you will have to act on at some point. Ninety per cent of the time, this is a lie. Thoughts are like little politicians; experts at rhetoric, sensationalism self-preservation, unlimited in number, mostly just noisy and useless but occasionally make important things happen.
We probably have ten or twenty or fifty apparent problems for every real problem, and that can make a normal day into a minefield if you react to every one as it comes up. The tendency is to want to engage with it right there, as if we can make it go away this way.
Unless the apparent problem is that I’m bleeding or something is literally on fire, I am very careful not to explore it mentally or decide what to do about it while I’m still feeling the emotional effect of first noticing it.
What I do first is remind myself that it’s probably not a problem. Then I write it down, knowing I’ll decide what to do about it later. This requires a decent workflow system of some kind, which you should have anyway if you expect to get anything done.
Later is almost always a better time to deal with something that comes to mind, if there is anything to deal with at all. When you first have a problematic thought, you feel caught off guard. This caught-off-guard state is probably the worst possible state to be in to be analyzing and solving a problem: you’re emotional, you feel unprepared, you don’t have the right tools with you, and you’re probably in the middle of something else.
As I get better at this, I notice something wonderful happening: problems don’t feel like problems any more. They’re just things to work on when it’s time to work.
This is dramatically different than what it’s like when you mistake thoughts of potential problems — of which there are thousands — for actual problems. In that mode, it seems like there are countless problems stalking you out there in the ether, ready to materialize in front of you when you’re least fit to deal with them.
They were only ever thoughts, which might correspond to some real-life thing that’s worth doing later. And when they do, you can do it with intention, in the way you think best, and there’s probably a nice prize at the end of it.