THE WORLD we live in is clearly full of causes for anxiety. This could be said about the poorest places on our planet, particularly where food is scarce and physical harm imminent. But stress can easily be found where the threat of harm is far more subtle, where the psyche is tripped up by variables in the environment, especially social ones.

Let’s take a closer look at the excess worrying often prompted by random circumstances and events. Consider the lavish acquisitions many enjoy, including expensive cars, the comforts of nicely-appointed living accommodations, vacation destinations, etc. There is not anything wrong with these amenities, per se, unless they are put into a comparative mode (to “keep up with the Joneses”) or create unnecessary financial stress.

Some interesting statistics came to my attention recently describing the results of a study which revealed that, in 1900, people needed 72 things in order to “function normally and be content.” Fifty years later the total came to 500 things. And this is before the Internet, iPhones, Amazon Prime, etc.! How much stress do we create for ourselves accumulating “stuff”? It doesn’t help that almost everything we want or need (whether real or imagined) is available at the push of a button.

How does this mindset affect us on the job? Is that new promotion the answer to my anxiety? Will a higher rate of the compensation offer the contentment I seek? Or is there something within me that I can change to have more peace? There is much that could be said about the effect of gratitude on our hearts: Grateful people are happier people.

This overwhelming consumerism and concern about personal advancement is accompanied by an endless supply of “urgent” emails that demand our “immediate” attention, robocalls, and 24/7 news reporting coming at us. This intense, continuing, often unsolicited, communication is anxiety evoking — just by its sheer volume alone.

So, what can be done to mitigate some of life’s stressors? Here are some ideas:

• For starters, take back control. Set limits to the amount of time you will spend on email, etc. Decide whether to engage. Don’t communicate your availability as being 24/7. Determine what your focus should be on and what is realistic. Yes, there are 24 hours in a day; and you need X hours to sleep and get recharged for the next day’s onslaught, Y hours to eat, etc. How many hours are left for those other activities that you feel are essential? You’re not doing anybody any favors by working yourself to illness. We are not robots —mercifully. We should not expect to have the endurance of machines.

• Take charge of your calendar (or else someone else will). The motivation to do — or not to do — resides in each of us. Others in our environment have their own motives in dealing with us. Be ready to take steps to preserve time to live abundantly and fulfill your distinct, personal mission.

• Choose responses. Don’t feel obligated to respond to every inquiry. In some cases, an abbreviated, tactful response may be called for. If your job demands a high level of interpersonal exchange, then look to better confine the additional demands your social media contacts represent.

• Consider your level of caffeine consumption, as well as the time of day it is being ingested. There is a limit to the amount of coffee that can be safely consumed by most people. Of course, there is also caffeine in products other than coffee. According to the FDA, over-consuming caffeine can cause, among other dangerous effects, “insomnia, jitters, anxiousness, fast heart rate, upset stomach, nausea, headache, a feeling of unhappiness.”

• Avoid mind-reading; it can lead to excessive and unnecessary worrying. “What did that person mean by that comment?” The answer often is “I don’t know.” Yet the temptation is to try to fill in the blank on our own, often with a negative bias.

Take, for example, a situation where you failed to respond to your boss on a timely basis. Fear of ill consequence can be quite painful and disruptive to your workflow. But when we look at our experiences in life, most of the time these worries are misplaced or exaggerated in our minds as we replay scenarios.

What I call the 80-10-10 rule might be helpful here, where 80% of the time the outcome is benign, 10% of the time it’s as bad as you thought, and 10% of the time something positive is the outcome.

How could anything positive come out of this situation? Well, perhaps more information was available than would have been if you had met the deadline and your boss recognized that fact. Worrying can be habitual. Techniques such as “thought stopping” might be needed, e.g., repeating a word or phrase, such as, “stop, stop, stop” until your mind moves on to another item.

Anxiety often leads to worrying, and worrying feeds stress. All this is anathema to the experience of intrinsic motivation.





Dr. Paul P. Baard is an organizational psychologist, specializing in motivation. Formerly a full-time professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Business and a senior line executive in the television industry, he is the lead author of a book on leadership and motivation, and has been published broadly, including in Harvard Business Review. He and Veronica Baard, a former managing director responsible for HR at a major international investment banking firm, head up Baard Consulting LLC, a firm in the greater Boston area, focusing on motivation, conflict reduction, and team building. Questions are welcomed at [email protected].