This One Thing Could Be Causing You to Be Unhappy and Less Productive, Even if You Excel at What You Do

Do you repeatedly think about situations that happen?

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Manop Phimsit / EyeEm/ Getty Images
Manop Phimsit / EyeEm/ Getty Images

Think about this situation… you created a presentation for a meeting. During the meeting some of the other people question you in what seems like an attacking way. After the meeting you think about, what could you have said? What should you have presented? Maybe you do not know the subject as much as you think you did? What should you have said to them in the moment? You go home, and along your drive you are still thinking about it. You try and forget it so that you can watch a show with loved ones, or eat dinner with your family, but you are still thinking about it. You go to bed, but you are still thinking about it. This, is rumination. Rumination is any situation where you replay an event repeatedly in your mind, mulling it over and over.

When we conducted our research into what contributed to individuals feeling more energized and being their most energized selves, we learned so much about the mindset and behaviors that can enable people and teams to be their most resilient, well adjusted, and emotionally stable, while maintaining high levels of productivity and engagement. We also learned the several attributes that detracted from this state, leading to negative impacts to the individual or organization. One of these was that of rumination. This is the “unproductive way of cycling through things repeatedly without ever gaining any insight into what those events mean in the bigger picture,” states Kevin Ochsner, the director of Columbia University’s Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab. By doing this we fail to gain any greater perspective and don’t move forward.

We also were recently at the United State of Women Summit in Los Angeles conducting some live data analytics, learning and sharing live data about how women felt and behaved across various gaps that exist: the confidence gap, the wellbeing gap, and their relationship to money. One of the areas where we found the most disempowering behaviors and mindsets was that of being solution-focused —the ability to move past a challenging situation with a mind to solving the situation and moving forward, rather than mulling over it, and thinking about what they could have or should have done differently. These insights support findings that adult women tend to ruminate more than men, further confirming the importance of this topic.

The impact of rumination

People that tend to ruminate can experience many negative effects. Research from Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D, a psychologist and professor at Yale University, found that “when people ruminate while they are in a depressed mood, they remember more negative things that happened to them in the past, they interpret situations in their current lives more negatively, and they are more hopeless about the future.” It can also increase binge-eating or binge-drinking in an effort to forget their ruminations.

Rumination has been found to be one of the similarities between anxiety and depression, and with anxiety and stress on the rise, it is also something that is impacting the workplace in several ways. In fact, findings published by PWC found that, “two in five employees say they have taken time off work or reduced their responsibilities due to their health, more than a third of the UK workforce is experiencing anxiety, depression, or stress, according to a survey of employees in junior and senior roles and 34 percent said they had a health and wellbeing problem.” It is also having very real impact to the bottom line, with depression costing employers “an estimated $44 billion each year in lost productivity and 15.4 million working days lost due to work-related stress” in 2017-2018 alone.

For example, think about when you send an email and get a less than desirable response. Think about the time you spend thinking what you could have done, or should have done, over and over again. All these minutes take away from other more productive tasks. Because rather than using the reflective time to think about how you can implement learnings from the moment and then moving on to other matters, you are wondering about all the what if’s, coulda’s, woulda’s, and shoulda’s. It could very well be the way in which you wrote the email that evoked a certain response — after all, everyone responds to different communication styles.

Another impact of having individuals that ruminate, is that of problem solving. Even when they have a great idea, people that ruminate may doubt their ideas, wonder if they are actually good, and may be stifled from telling others about them or acting on them. This can impact the free flow of ideas, which works against innovation. Given that about half of employees with depression are untreated, and that just $1 of investment for depression and anxiety leads to a return of $4 in better health and work performance, it is clear that we have a ways to go in this area.

Strategies for coping with rumination

There are a few tools and techniques that people can try to help them break through rumination. However, it is a good idea to remember that is not a one-time fix. As with anything to do with transforming mindsets and behaviors, it takes time to engage these new patterns of thought, so that they are a more automatic response. And of course, if you find that you are really cycling in these thoughts, unable to improve, then it is a good idea to consider if you need some professional help to guide and support you work through it.

If you find yourself thinking over and over again about a situation you can try:

  • Finding a positive distraction. Something that makes you feel good and absorbs you. Something that you really enjoy, or energizes you, so that your mind is focused on that activity and you get swept away in that instead of your ruminations.
  • Focusing on something bigger than yourself. Thinking about other problems and issues that people are experiencing, so that you bring context to your current situation. Even taking it one step further and spending some time helping others can help evoke more positive feelings.
  • Challenging the validity of your negative thoughts. Rethinking your situation by looking at it from the perspective of what others’ intentions or needs might have been, how you may be interpreting events, and whether the thoughts you are having are truly accurate. This process of rethinking can work to adjust your emotional reaction.

The more you implement strategies to work against your ruminations, the more you will learn to leave negative, unwarranted worries behind. After all, thinking about the situation, processing it, learning from it, and moving on is a far happier and productive place to be.

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