Regularly it is time to do some housekeeping. One of the tasks we frequently put off is cleaning out our “mental attic” – that storehouse of outdated, disorganized and dusty items. By restoring order and reorganizing space up there, we leave ourselves better prepared for new challenges and opportunities.
Some suggestions for taking stock and making room:
• Many of us needlessly store stress-producing baggage in our attics. If this applies to you, practice your A.R.T., or Aggravation Reduction Techniques. Try this: write down three specific things that cause you aggravation in the workplace. After each, write down three things you can do to eliminate or reduce their impact – one immediate action, one thing that you promise yourself to do next week, and one longer-term response. If you’re feeling ambitious and reflective, you can do the same exercise for some personal characteristic or habit you’d like to target for improvement:
Search your attic until you find a small item called NO – it’s the single most powerful time- and stress-saving tool at your disposal. It’s hard for many of us in residential life to find this item, leading me to wonder whether our profession naturally attracts people who can’t say no or if it’s a consequence of our socialization into our profession. Whichever it is, we often forget that the temporary discomfort that comes from saying “No” is inevitably dwarfed by the long-term pain and aggravation that accompanies our failure to say it. Not saying “No” because it’s briefly uncomfortable is like not running away from a hungry bear because we don’t want to briefly tire ourselves out – pretty short-sighted and likely none too good for us.
Don’t forget to dust off the “No Accessory Kit” as well – essential, socially acceptable ways of saying “No” when the word, unadorned, seems too harsh or somehow just not quite right:
*”I’m sure it will be a wonderful program and regret that I won’t be able to attend – please let me know how things went next week.”
*”Let me refer you to a colleague who may be able to provide what you’re seeking.”
*”I understand your position and it appears we may simply have to agree to disagree this time.”
*”Thanks, but I just can’t.”
• Throw out all your stored notions of being perfect. I recently received an e-mail poster promoting mediocrity, since “it takes a lot less time and most people won’t notice the difference until it’s too late.” Dr. Robert Kohlenberg, a University of Washington psychologist quoted in Omni magazine, would probably welcome this message, having cited “doing too good a job on some tasks that don’t deserve it” as a major stress producer and time waster. Focus on prioritizing those things are most important and doing them at a high level while permitting yourself to be competent and efficient – but not flat-out amazing – with others.
Why worry about this? What’s wrong with being a perfectionist? Dr. Paul Hewitt of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver is blunt: “Perfectionists are not happy people. They don’t derive any pleasure from what they accomplish, even though everybody around them is raving about the good job they’ve done” (Men’s Health, December 1996). His recommendation: strive for excellence, which is attainable, instead of perfection, which isn’t. (WARNING: this advice does not apply if you’re one of those people who doesn’t put effort into ANYthing – but people like this are pretty rare in our line of work anyway).
• Next to the notions of perfectionism, you may have found a trunk full of worries. Here’s a “Worry Table” reportedly found in a health care office:
|THINGS WE WORRY ABOUT|
|Things that never happen||40%|
|Things that can’t be changed by all the worry in the world||35%|
|Things that turn out better than expected||15%|
|Petty useless worries||8%|
Getting rid of the 98% of worries that are essentially useless should result in significant space savings and stress reductions.
• Monitor your acceptance for dealing with change. Many people would agree with the observation that “the only person who likes change is a wet baby.” Others might be fine with change when they’re the initiators and less welcoming of it when they’re the recipients or unwilling implementers of change. In residence hall work, we’re all likely to find ourselves in any of these roles in the course of a month, week, or even a single day. Remember that change has ideological, political, technological, organizational, societal and individual components, and try to match your responses accordingly. If you’ve been holding on to the one right way for anything to be done, take this exercise from “The Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff Workbook” by Richard Carlson: “Write Down Your Five Most Stubborn Positions And See If You Can Soften Them.” Carlson recommends recording these positions, identifying why we’ve held onto them, and brainstorming some possible positive consequences of softening them. In other words (take a deep breath here): what if you’re wrong?
• Choose your battles. There’s a fine line between being an “Idea Person” and a “P.I.T.A.” (Pain In The A_ _ ) to your supervisor or institution. Keep in mind that the primary purpose of any organization, even a college or university, is survival. Also, remember that those above you in the organization may well value predictability and stability over fundamental change, and that they probably had a significant role in building the organizational structures that you may find so burdensome or nonsensical. One way to measure your value to your institution is by how many problems you:
• Keep digging until you find that much-postponed, much-despised task that you need to deal with. You know the one – yes, THAT one. Stop reading – I’ll be here when you get back
You didn’t move, did you? You just sat there and scrolled down. Come on – humor me. Go get that job and bring it back here.
OK, now that you’re back, spend just 10 uninterrupted minutes working on that task before putting it away again. Congratulations! You’ve just taken an important first step, since just beginning a difficult project is the biggest hurdle most of us face in completing one. Once it’s underway, we find ourselves much more willing to revisit it -even briefly – and our progress toward its completion becomes a self-reinforcing behavior, just like a roller coaster crossing the crest of a hill picks up speed until it reaches the bottom.
• Now that everything is cleared out, it’s time to clean up. Our behavior is a function of our personality and our environment. We all know that our physical space affects our mood, our productivity and our health – we see regular examples of this in our residence hall work. So why not act on this knowledge by rearranging our offices and living spaces, taking steps to simplify, personalize, and humanize our surroundings?
• Finally, once you’ve made the effort to clean out your attic, be vigilant about preventing things from settling up there again. For this task, you’ll want to keep a box of QTIPs around. “QTIP” stands for Quit Taking It Personally, and writer Jeanne Lehaie recommends that we use QTIPs liberally as we work to monitor our reactions to individuals, organizational decisions and other potential external stressors. Simply remembering that you can choose to control your reactions to these external forces is a powerful tool for remaining calm and composed and not accumulating resentment or other useless, negative clutter in your attic. Lahaie quotes Dr. Christiane Northrup, who works with people with cancer: “The healthiest people I know don’t take their diseases or even their lives too personally. They spend very little time beating themselves up.” They do not accept responsibility not for getting cancer, but they DO take ownership for choosing the way in which they will respond to this event. If this approach works for people grappling with serious illnesses, it should be more than sufficient for our workplace issues. Use QTIPs on a regular basis to prevent harmful items from taking up residency again. By making this commitment to yourself, you can avoid having to make another extended visit to the attic for some really heavy lifting later on. Good luck!
Submitted by Jon A. Conlogue, Director of Residential Life, Westfield State College