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The Power of Being an Observer- Part 3 of this month's 3 part Series

In this series, we’ve already looked at two issues that are key to productivity and presence in the workplace: the role of the brain in controlling our lives, and how to handle two key situations at work. Both of these, you may have noticed, dig deeply into principles of mindfulness.

That’s something you might be familiar with through apps like Calm or Headspace -- which is great. But mindfulness isn’t just about a daily meditation practice, nor is it only suited for people who consider themselves “spiritual.”

I want to touch upon something that’s incredibly key to leading a mindful life, especially when it comes to the working world. And that’s the power of being an observer. This is how you take control of your own story and gain the ability to navigate the working world in a way that’s measured, mindful, and strategic. When you gain the ability to observe your own life rather than react to it, you’re able to notice distinctions, realize that you have options in stressful situations, and find the mental space to make choices rather than letting your negative thoughts pull you along. When you do that, you’re living life as a reactor. You’re getting caught in emotional patterns that end up repeating themselves and eventually spiraling out of control.

Here’s an exercise you can do to dig into becoming an observer, not a reactor. Since March, the effects of COVID-19 have been dominating our lives. It has undoubtedly led to a lot of new emotions and impulses for you, perhaps some that have been influencing your presence on the job. So, grab a journal and consider this: What are three emotions that have been showing up for you a lot since COVID hit? They don’t necessarily have to be negative. You could note that you’ve been experiencing anger, frustration, joy, excitement, jealousy, or what-have-you. Then take a moment to look at these emotions you’ve listed, and ask yourself: How do these emotions fit into my personal story? And how is that story core to who I am?

I’m a big fan of the author Byron Katie, who has popularized a method of self-inquiry called “The Work.” Katie emphasizes that our stories are what make us who we are, and that by training ourselves we can help rewrite them. (She published a book called Who Would You Be Without Your Story? that I recommend.) When you’ve analyzed those three emotions you just wrote down, you may realize that the story that shows up for you is one that you want to change. Maybe there’s a better story for you that’s still true and authentic. What might that story be?

You’ve now analyzed three strong emotions you’ve been experiencing lately. But often, strong emotions emerge in real time. They show up (“I’m frustrated because my boss isn’t paying attention to something I need to get my job done”), they often fit into a broader story that you’ve been telling yourself (“I’m never going to be good enough to get acknowledged at work”), and then the emotion reinforces it. You get triggered. It happens so instantaneously that it's tough to know which one comes first, the emotion or the broader story. This is where it’s important to bring in called “the pause.”

Pausing -- taking a moment to step back from your thoughts, even if it’s just a matter of undertaking one of the “one minute moments” that we talked about in the first post in this series, can give you a moment to step back from your emotions and take inventory of those three questions:

  • What emotion am I experiencing right now?

  • What story does this fit into?

  • Who would I be without this story?

And that’s how you address emotions as an observer. You’re quieting the reactive parts of your brain, the limbic system and its evolutionary propensity for negativity bias.

I’ll be clear: You'll never have it all figured out. No one does. None of us, no matter how much we train our minds, will reach a point where we're never upset or angry or jealous again. But it will get a lot better. You’ll avoid a lot of the triggering, blaming, and excuse-making that you used to experience. Those negative emotions and feedback loops will still pop up, but when you train yourself to experience life as an observer, you can address them as something productive: It’s just another chance to practice.

Don't forget to check out the first 2 parts to this series by following the links below:

Training Your Mind for Productivity and Presence at Work: Part 1 of a 3 Part Series

The two situations you need to know how to handle. Part 2 of this month's 3 part series

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