I recently met with a client, let’s call her Ann, who described a sense of dread she’s been experiencing immediately upon awakening in the morning. She explained that there have been some changes at work, but also unrelated issues affecting her outside of work. And as for the morning dread, it’s something she’s experienced before when going through a “rough patch.” But this time she’s having a difficult time shaking it.
Ann felt more stuck than any one issue would seem to warrant or explain. “What’s wrong with me?” she asked. Having developed a bit of rapport and trust with her, I felt free to be a bit playful in my response: “There’s nothing wrong with you that some behavior change won’t cure!” We then explored the details of her experience.
The dread she was feeling was like a black cloud hanging over her. Nonspecific and inert, it felt like a weighted blanket holding her down, even protecting her perhaps. But it also paralyzed her in a state of inaction. She’s only seemed able to overcome it by gritting her teeth and pressing forward. Then, later in the morning, after coffee and getting started at work, the cloud would begin lifting.
But at the end of the day, she would leave feeling exhausted and knowing that more of the same awaited her the next morning. This routine was wearing her out, and she was concerned that it was noticeably affecting her work. She lost interest and energy for doing anything after work. She had retreated from social engagement with friends and family. Signs of depression? Yes, but also chronic patterns of maladaptive coping. We would address both.
We discussed a way for her to take control of her day, her time, and her actions. It’s simple.
Create a two-column action plan, with column 1 titled “Making the Rounds” (MTR) and column 2 labeled “Tackling the Challenges” (TTC). It’s a daily action plan that Ann would formulate briefly (10 minutes) at the end of the day. By doing this she would close her work day, leaving few if any loose ends to worry about. And it gave her a game plan for starting the day in the morning.
She could begin her evening and go to bed knowing that the morning would come with a doable plan, for starting the day in a manner that would affect her mood and her readiness to initiate action. Now, let’s take a closer look at how the MTR and TTC help create a more positive way of feeling, thinking, acting, and interacting.
Making the Rounds
First, she would identify two or three stakeholders with whom she would touch base first thing in the morning. These would be people with whom she has some reason to coordinate, collaborate, and align with in her role., but also people with a positive attitude. She’d would have a specific topic to address, something simple, practical, but important. But first she’d greet them, engage with them, participate in a “good morning” exchange.
When we are feeling beleaguered, it’s tempting to retreat, isolate ourselves, and go silent. This, in turn, can further depress our mood and weaken our sense of well-being and confidence. So, Ann would go the other way. Rather than avoid contact and connection, she would approach it. But she would have something specific to talk about. And she would try to choose people who give off a positive charge.
Notice it’s not 10 or 20 people, the target list is 2 or 3. It’s not totally unscripted or diffuse in purpose, it’s focused, delimited in scope. She taps into energies of initiative, agency, self-control. It’s positive, solution-focused attitude and behavior. It generates a tempo, it puts her in the driver’s seat. It does not eliminate got-to-do routines, but it prioritizes what’s most important.
Tackling the Challenges
While the MTR plan emphasizes brief, structured, interpersonal engagement to set a positive mood and energizing tempo, the TTC focuses on taking a proactive position on priorities and projects that are important and take time accomplish.
So, at the end of the day, Ann would identify the 2 or 3 challenges that she will specifically focus on tomorrow. What are they and who are the key stakeholders with whom she must collaborate to make a significant advance toward completion? What are the next-step issues, actions, or questions to be discussed? She will finish the day by formulating this TTC plan. It will be available as a guide in the morning, assuring her that she’s on top of things.
This planning activity delimits the scope of her focus and action. Of course, there will be surprises and intervening events, but she is taking charge of key priorities, the “important stuff.” In time, she may include some of the thornier issues, including strained relationships, in her TTC plan, addressing them in a timelier manner. This helps eliminate chronic sources of stress and strain.
A Different Morning Experience
Since she briefly drafts these plans at the end of the day, she leaves work feeling more finished, freer to enjoy her evenings a bit more. And when she awakens in the morning, knowing her plans for the day are already formulated, she can arise to a moment of calm stretching, a few light exercises, and linger over a cup of coffee while briefly reviewing her plans for the day.
The amorphous dread is replaced with something more practical, productive, and doable. After trialing this approach for a week or two, she’s able to hone it as a personal practice. It’s not only a means of coping with a rough patch, it can become a regular personal discipline. It can also be an adaptive way of getting started in a new role or big project. And it can produce a contagion of positivity, helping her better cope with other issues beyond work.
It may even be something you’d like to try!