December 15, 2019

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

You’ve got a deadline to meet, Benny is throwing up, the car won’t start, and the dog chewed your shoe.

No wonder Richard Carlson’s book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and It’s All Small Stuff was a best seller in the late ’90s. Dr. Carlson was offering harried society a way to “…put challenges into perspective, reduce stress and anxiety through small daily changes, and find the path to achieving [its] goals.”

I read the book then gave it away at some point. I wish I had kept it because its 2 to 3 page chapters were simple, to the point, and didn’t even have to be read in order. I’ve long forgotten the actual content, but the premise of the book is still clear in my mind: Most things you encounter on a daily basis aren’t worth getting worked up about.

Over the years, I’ve had varying degrees of success when it comes to not sweating the small stuff. In fact, I’m often better at dealing with the big stuff than the minor day-to-day annoyances that seem to pop up sans cesse.

However, even though there are myriad things that can and will go wrong every day, there are many more things that go right. Remembering that is probably the first strategy for not sweating the small stuff.

Here are a few other strategies I try to incorporate when I find myself getting worked up over what’s essentially nothing.

Keep things in perspective. You’re in a traffic jam. Rather than grit your teeth, bang on the steering wheel, or lay on the horn, simply observe the situation without judgement and say, “I’m stuck in traffic.” This shifts the dynamic and helps to reduce stress. Then turn on the radio, listen to a podcast, or mentally review your to-do list. Also keep in mind that people rarely die from being late.

Throw it away. A study published in Psychological Science suggests that writing down your stressors on a piece of paper and then throwing the paper away can help clear your mind. If you want to save a tree, try typing what’s bothering you, then hit Delete, or say it out loud to a neutral party like your dog.

Step back. When my head feels like exploding, I’ll sometimes remove myself from a situation, e.g. take a short walk, to dial down the pressure. Physically moving away from a situation for a period of time creates mental distance, giving time to breathe, relax, and if necessary, reflect.

Create space. At work, I have days where there are lots of meetings. And one thing I don’t like is having back-to-back meetings. It’s good to have time to go to the bathroom, grab a snack, refill the water bottle or just breathe for a few minutes before focusing on the next item at hand. This applies to relationships too. The best ones are those where people take time to pursue their own interests. Partners and children are important, but they shouldn’t get all of your free time. Even extroverts can benefit from some alone time, if for nothing else, to plan their next week’s social calendar.

Slow the pace. Any long-distance runner will tell you how important it is to pace yourself because  shooting too fast off the start line often means a bigger struggle to the finish. Face it, most things you encounter on a daily basis are not urgent no matter what anyone says. Unless a situation is life threatening, relax the pressure. There’s no need to be spinning in circles.

Set a time limit. I find that if I must stew over something, I give myself a set number of minutes to do so. I acknowledge the emotions that come up and let them go so I can relax and find a solution. As an example, this works well when someone sends me a snarky email. Rather than hit back in the heat of the moment, I allow myself to feel angry, hurt, insulted (or whatever), realize that the person in question is likely having a bad day or is stressed, and figure out the best way to respond kindly but assertively.

My general rule of thumb when I find myself sweating the small stuff is to ask, “Will this matter next year?” And even better, “Will this matter when I’m lying on my deathbed?” Almost 100% of the time, the answer is “Nope.” That in itself reminds me that it’s all small stuff and it’s best to act accordingly.