How to Regain Positive Momentum in the Midst of Negative Circumstances

Boundaries for Leaders

I (Dr. Cloud) was addressing an organization in the aftermath of a financial meltdown. We discussed why so many people were feeling down, defeated, and unable to perform at the levels they were used to. (It is amazing how just knowing that there is a reason for why you feel the way you do can be helpful. I wanted them to know that they weren't crazy.) But then, I heard the words that I never want to hear.

"So, what you are telling us is that we are basically screwed," an attendee said. "We are just going to feel this way until the economy is different. This is just the new normal."

"Yes, you are right," I said. "This has become the new normal. And that is exactly your problem."

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"Your creative drives, the energy that you summon to go out and win, have shut down," I said. "You feel that since you can't control the economy, you can't control anything. And now that you have been feeling that way for a while, your brain has tricked you into thinking that that is the way it really is, that there is nothing you can do about it. And it has become, as you say, 'normal' to think that way."

I went on to explain that the thing she was calling the "new normal" was a state inside her head. "It has become normal to you to feel that there is nothing you can do."

"That is how I feel," she said. "I just find myself not knowing what to do."

"Exactly," I said. "But if anyone knows what to do, it is probably you. You have been a leader at this company, and in this industry, for over a decade and a very high performer. If you can't figure out something to do, who can?"

What I am about to tell you is going to sound so simplistic that you might miss the profound value that it has. But you have to just trust me that its effects can be incredible for your life.

First, take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle of the page, creating two columns. In column number one, write down all of the things that you have no control over that are making your business difficult, such as the economy, the stock market, your customers' finances, the banks, your boss, the parent company, the health care cost increase, the company's overall budget, the board, the elections, the newscasts that hurt your business, etc. Those are the things that you have no control over that truly are affecting you. Get everything in that column that you can think of.

Next, I want you to really worry about these items, even as a group. Obsess over them. Ruminate. Dwell. Think it through over and over...FOR ABOUT FIVE OR TEN MINUTES. Then, I want you to set the list aside until the next day when you can do the same thing all over again. The reason I suggest that you do this is that you need to! You need to worry about this stuff, and get into "Ain't it awful!" for a few minutes because it is! It is really bad stuff. I do not want you to be in denial. Besides, your brain needs to complete the loop of making sure that you know how bad it is. Otherwise, it will continue to remind you of it, probably in the middle of the night or every time you have some good idea. So, focus on it. But...only for about five or ten minutes.

Next, after you have had your "worry time," I want you to draw a circle around that time block and stop thinking about that column. Quarantine it. Put a boundary around it. If you find it helpful, put a red STOP sign on it. No more thinking about those things.

Next, and most important, let's go to the second column. In this column, I want you to write down everything that you DO have control over that can drive results. This need not be a final list. You can always add more activities as they occur to you and your team, as they probably will change as time goes on. But once you have the list in the initial form, I want you to focus on it every single day. Make prioritizing and doing those activities the primary focus of every day. Work the list.

What makes this simple exercise so powerful is that it speaks directly to our brains' executive functions and our desire to have control. The brain begins to "attend" to the actual activities that it can control, and it "inhibits" the thoughts, behaviors, and information that interfere with positive actions. The process of doing this, individually and collectively, builds up working memory and creates those positive, action-oriented behaviors that lead to better results, new products, new partnerships, new customers, and a lot more fun. The brain begins to get out of the mud.

Optimism is powerful. But, its resurrection cannot take hold until a sense of control is regained.


Is negative thinking overwhelming your ability to get results in your personal life, your organization, or your workplace? Discover why some people get results and others don't in Boundaries for Leaders by Dr. Henry Cloud.

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