What big goals do you hope to accomplish this year? Many of us dream about achieving something that requires a lot of work to see that dream come true: a major project of some kind. We think about that project with mixed emotions – excited about the good that could result, but worried about whether or not we can really make the effort to succeed. Too often, we let our emotions wander to the point where they overwhelm us and we simply give up.
That has happened time and again in my writers group. Many people there have talked excitedly for years about how they’re planning to write a book. Yet most of them never actually get around to starting their book projects. Some finally do begin, only to quit when they become emotionally overwhelmed by how much work is required. Many of these gifted writers I know joke at our meetings that the only writing they’re currently working on is writing checks to pay their bills – yet they still hope to write books “someday.”
No matter what kind of project you need to work on to reach a goal, one well-being practice can prevent you from becoming overwhelmed by the effort: mindfulness.
Mindfulness – focusing your mind fully and nonjudgmentally on the present moment – is a powerful tool for managing your emotions. When you approach your work mindfully, you become aware of why you’re feeling the way you are about a project. Identifying your emotions when you’re overwhelmed by stress empowers you to cut away confusion and deal with the root of the problem. Then, as you continue to pay attention mindfully, you can calmly let those feelings pass over you while choosing to press forward with your work. No matter what type of stressful emotions you feel – from anxiety to frustration – you’ll be able to move beyond being distracted and discouraged by them. Practicing mindfulness day by day will empower you to shrink the stress of your work down to a manageable size.
Here are some key questions you can ask yourself every day as you’re working on a major project:
· Why am I working on this?: Remind yourself of the reasons why this project is important to you. How will it help you fulfill your purpose? What kind of valuable service will it contribute to others? Focusing on why your work on the project is worthwhile will motivate you to carry on with fresh energy.
· What progress can I make just for today?: Mindfulness centers your mind on the present moment, so you don’t have to worry about the future or be discouraged by the past. If you focus simply on each current day’s work, you won’t be overwhelmed by the scope of the entire project or worry about setbacks that either have happened or could happen. This will free you to simply do your best work right now.
· What negative emotions am I feeling that I can rise above?: By paying close attention to your thoughts and feelings through mindfulness, you can identify emotions that are currently blocking you from making progress on your project. Dr. David Rock, director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, suggests in his book Your Brain at Work that by labeling your feelings (instead of suppressing or denying them) you can reduce worry and improve decision-making. That’s because identifying your emotions gives you a sense of control that calms your brain’s limbic system (its panic “fight-or-flight” response) and activates your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that helps you think through decisions. Mindfulness helps you calm your troubling emotions and choose how to respond to them (rather than just reacting to them).
· How can I enjoy my work on this project right now?: Through mindfulness, you have the power to choose how to focus your mind. So decide to focus it on what’s positive about your project work. Look for what you truly enjoy about the process and dwell on that. The more you think about what you enjoy, the more positive aspects of your work you’ll likely notice – and all that positivity will motivate you to keep working.
Working mindfully on a large project is especially important if you’re in a leadership role at work. The coworkers you’re leading rely on you to help them stay motivated and on track – and they’re dealing with their own stressful emotions when they feel overwhelmed. Coaching skills are vital to leading team projects successfully. One of the most valuable coaching skills is mindfulness, because of how it empowers people to focus on shared goals with clarity. By approaching a team project mindfully, you can lead your colleagues to an open, objective perspective on the project you all are working on together.
So go ahead and tackle the big project that you’re considering taking on this year. As you center your emotions through mindfulness day by day, you really can achieve big goals.
Whitney Hopler works as Communications Director at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being (CWB) and has written for many media organizations, from About.com to the Washington Post. Connect with Whitney on Twitter and connect with CWB on Twitter and Facebook.