How I learnt to ease the mind (and control my reactions)

Today I woke up at 5:14 am.

I did that not because I have some fine-tuned morning routine, not because my cat or neighbours woke me up or because I’d gone to sleep early. My body just decided that 5 am on a Saturday was the right time to get up.

Had this happened over 6 months ago, I would have been SO annoyed!

I would’ve tossed and turned in bed and then get frustrated because I couldn’t fall back asleep. Then I’d most likely fall into a whirlwind of thoughts and play the blame game with myself and other factors who had led to that situation.

But not today. Today I tried some breathing exercises before deciding the best thing I can do is make the most of my morning. I read some great articles from my ever-growing list in Pocket.

Then I got up, pet and fed my cat and opened the windows wide. I enjoyed the freshness of the air and the sounds of birds chirping, which I find almost miraculous given that we live minutes away from the city center.

In the last quiet hours of the morning, I started writing this post, brought on by a lovely chat I had with a friend the other day.

He mentioned that I’ve become a lot calmer in the past months and asked how I’d gotten there. Thinking that my experience with easing the mind may help others who face similar challenges, I decided to put it in writing.

Useless expenses

For more than 2 years now, me and my boyfriend have been using a personal finance app to keep track of our expenses. It’s a very useful practice that has led us to better manage our finances and actually save money while cutting spending on useless things that bring nothing valuable into our lives.

In this data-driven world that we live in, we keep track and measure so many things, but lack a hugely important KPI: our energy expenditure is not one of them. (And I don’t mean the number of calories we burn while exercising.)

A few months ago, I’d spend huge amounts of energy trying to deal with such roadblocks, conflicts (real or imagined), frequent acts of injustice (either big or small) and other shortcomings inherent to life.

I easily got upset by rude people on the subway, I got mad in traffic, when careless drivers would endanger myself and others and I got furious over the political injustice in my country, because it affects all the good people that deserve better.

All this outrage, all this inner turmoil would leave me depleted. It would build up tension in my mind and body and this would result in poor sleep quality, lower back and/or upper back pain, overall low energy and a cranky attitude.

Had I measured the type of reactions, emotions and thoughts I was feeding myself (like I do with my food), I’d probably see that I’m on a bad diet.

And it’s not that some of these reactions and thoughts I had weren’t justified, but what I’ve learnt over the past half a year had taught me that managing my response to any situation or stimulus has little to do with the cause.

The tools for change

So what brought on this increased state of calmness and much more frequent moments of serenity?

For me, it was a set of books, experiences and changes that packed a lot of wisdom and power.

The first trigger was that I was given the chance to become the manager of the team I was part of, as my manager and mentor decided to seek out new challenges. This was a huge leap for me, because it would take more effort, both mentally and emotionally, to rise to the expectations attached to the new role.

Having to deal with tasks and projects that were both more complex and numerous, I had no choice but to calm down. Running around like a headless chicken could not be helpful in intense situations, such as moving offices while dealing with loads of work caused by a large-scale cyber attack that turned everyone’s eyes on the information security industry (where I work).

Being a manager comes with an increased responsibility towards the people in the team and much more challenging decisions to make. A clear, cool head is a lot more useful in this context than fiery reactions.

Also, in work (and life) there is no perfect continuity in everything you do. There are obstacles and delays, there are limitations and debates and many, many decisions to be made on a daily basis. Accepting that all of these are inherent and that it is all a balancing act helps set the foundations for resilience.

At the same time with this big change in my life, I also went through the altMBA experience. The altMBA is a leadership program created by Seth Godin and a brilliant team of people who had a tremendous, hugely beneficial impact on my life.

During the altMBA I shaped and molded a new way of thinking and approaching life with its never-ending layers of complexity. The program taught me how to make better decisions, how to let go of sunk costs, how to use reflection to track progress and how to set better goals – not in this order and among many other eye-opening transformations. More on this in a later post (promise!).

Along with these two meaningful overlapping experiences I sought wisdom in books, as I’ve been doing for years. Through a combination of research, recommendations and luck, I ended up reading a pile of inspiring and deeply motivating books. Here are some of them:

What struck me was that, even though these books were written by fundamentally different people, they all felt like pieces of the same puzzle. Each nugget of wisdom prompted me not only to write down a quote, but to try to live by it.

So, step by step, I started paying more attention to my reactions and how I could harness my energy to find better ways of tackling diverse situations.

I also looked at people with more responsibility than me and tried to see what (I thought) they’re doing right in the way they behave and make decisions. When I felt stuck with a task, I asked for help or accepted the challenge of framing it differently (another valuable lesson from the altMBA). After all, Elon Musk wants to put people on Mars!

The more I exercised calmness, the more clearheaded I managed to stay, which helped me become more productive and focused, and maybe even a more pleasant person to be around.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suddenly a zen monk, untouched by external stimuli, smiling wholeheartedly at rude drivers who cut people off in traffic. Not by a long shot.

To many, the changes my friend noticed and I feel are nonexistent. However, to me they are incredibly valuable!

The past 6 months have taught me a great deal, but this discipline focused on controlling my emotions and reactions has been life-changing. And I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface, which fills me with enthusiasm about future possibilities!

Many of these things I’ve mentioned might seem obvious, but it’s not always the case when you’re stuck in the middle of… everything.

So much of our energy and strength are eroded by expending energy on trivial things which don’t matter in the long run. We often don’t realize that it can become a serious problem, not only at work or in our personal life, but for our well-being. It’s just like poor eating habits and lack of appropriate care for our bodies endanger our health.

Deciding to break this vicious cycle and improve your abilities to deal with the good and bad in life (and everything in between) can be so much more rewarding than it seems!

So how about it? This weekend seems like a good time to start making the best of every situation. I really hope you’ll embrace this challenge.

Featured photo: Creative layout made of green leaves via Shutterstock (edited with the Shutterstock editor).

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