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Cognition

Fortitude 101: Surviving Deadlines and Protecting Passions

I should have an office pony. Something straight out of Thelwell, with a bushy mane as wide as its body, sparkly-painted hooves, and short enough to use as a portable laptop stand. I’m convinced that this should (and will) happen one day. Just ask my coworkers how often “little horses” come up in conversations with me.

I have a long list of “shoulds.” Most are pony-delightful, but not all of them; some like to sneak in and push my limits—the devious suckers. Those shoulds are the kind that adore instilling doubt, delaying decisions, and convincing us we need to incessantly reach and achieve and exhaust. It takes guts to tackle that kind of should. They play the long game, and they always seem to crop up during tests of our fortitude. They love to mess with our heads.

“I should pull myself together—I have to meet this insane deadline. Again. I should reorganize my files. I should go back to school, go to more conferences. I should write. I should get a raise. I shouldn’t be this tired. I should stop hitting snooze. I should take a vacation. Should I eat more gelato? Shouldn’t there be more to my life? Should I quit my job? Should I change careers?” Should I, should I….

I’ve worked in the digital field for a long time—at small and large organizations, at reactive and proactive, at streamlined and “by any means necessary.” I’ve become very familiar with the cycle of deadlines, seemingly hopeless burnout, and miraculous recovery that goes on at some places. Prime territory for shoulds that mess with your grit and professionalism, looking for chinks in the armor.

What do you do when you’re lost in the shoulds? How do you stay positive and rediscover your focus and passion? How do you push the reset button?

Personal experience has taught me to be self-aware and be direct. When I’m in the trenches and going toe-to-toe with the shoulds, I remind myself:

It’s not going to last forever. Seriously. There’s always an end or transition of some kind. You can either wait it out or make it happen.

Giving up is an illusion. You can get knocked down, fall down, or lie down of your own accord, but there’s no relief on the other side of Giving Up. What you’re actually doing is avoiding a decision. At some point, you will push through, get up, and move forward, because giving up is a mirage.

When you avoid making a decision, you’re creating artificial stress. Yank yourself away from the gravitational effects of stinkin’ thinkin’ by choosing a direction. Go for it—whatever it is, and if for no other reason, make a choice. If you don’t like your decision, just change it later. You’re allowed.

Get out of your head. We’re trained to see ourselves as main characters in a story—but we rarely step away to see that perspective. Are you a superstar gloriously fighting against the odds, a victim of circumstance, or somewhere in between? You decide that. When we’re physically and mentally stretched, the shoulds attack the way we see ourselves—how our life “should” be. Don’t react.

Set aside time for total mental checkout from all pressure to accomplish, period, no matter how much is hanging over you. Look, that stuff literally isn’t going anywhere if you step away for an hour, and you need to enforce some boundaries. Learn which shoulds to ignore and which are incredibly insightful. If you listen to the themes, they can tell you a lot about the story you see yourself in. Best of all, you can rewrite the plot.

Take a breather from your lifelong passion. Disillusionment with your job? Nah. Try an experiment. Give yourself permission to loosen the white-knuckled grip and bravely walk away, but then turn back and notice something: Your passion didn’t vaporize, and you didn’t lose the ability to get it back. It’s waiting, exactly where you left it. You might just need some healthy personal space to rediscover each other, only you’re holding on too tightly to let that happen.

Introduce an unexpected variable. Sometimes one new thing or one thing too many is what kicks you out of a rut. Time to do something on your bucket list. Better yet, pick a new hobby so random and in contrast to everything typically “you” that you force a shift in how you see yourself. It’s exciting to try on a new “Your Name Here.”

People show up in the way you see them. Has your opinion of the boss devolved to slug level? What’s your opinion of yourself? Don’t filter out the good by focusing on the negatives. When we filter, it affects everything we say and do in regards to that person, and likewise stages their responses to us. If you have a difficult relationship with someone, you’ll treat them with that in mind, and they’ll react because they pick up on it. That goes for yourself, too. Most people are doing the best they can; go out of your way to be generous. Be the one to change the dynamic.

You might feel cornered, but you’ve got this. Detach from the shoulds, grab a lifeline, and wave off the fog until you can find your way out. It’s just a temporary rough spot.

Go forth and reboot.

Mica McPheeters is an Assistant Project Manager at Happy Cog with a background in Information Sciences and Multimedia. Mica came to work in the Philadelphia office all the way from Florida and helps keep the team on track.

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