Crucial Skills®

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Getting Things Done

Don’t Let it Bring You Down

Dear David,

I’m impressed by people who let things roll off their shoulders. I can’t seem to let things go, sometimes to the point of losing sleep, getting distracted from my other tasks—the list goes on. I often get like this when someone is upset and they’re coming down on me, usually external customers. How can I make sure these types of interactions don’t ruin my day or week?

It’s Bringing Me Down

Dear It’s Bringing Me Down,

I empathize, truly. When even one aspect of our life is uncomfortable or apparently out of control, it can discolor everything. I’ve experienced this more times than I can remember.

Here’s my tireless litany to myself (and anyone else who cares to listen): there are no problems, only projects. In other words (and this is the hard news), we only worry about things we wish were different but that we aren’t actively engaged in changing. We don’t complain about gravity, for example, even though it might contribute to a lot of challenges.

This is not to pretend that things are always easy or comfortable. It means that when we worry or complain, it’s because there’s a bell ringing (something bothering us) to which we haven’t yet responded. The world itself is fine—it’s not overwhelmed or stressed—just look out your window. The issue is how we are engaged with our world. That is the essence of GTD®.

For example, if something is bugging me and I want it to stop bugging me, I have to figure out why it bothers me, what I might be able to do about it, and then engage with my commitment to its resolution. If I learn there’s nothing I can do about it, I must accept it as part of the landscape in which I operate. That’s strategic thinking. In short, if there is something I can do to clarify, resolve, or eliminate the tension I feel, what’s my next action? That’s what I need to determine and then do.

Responding in this way may not create the world you want, but it will help alleviate the feelings you talk about.

One perhaps silly but sure way to reduce your stress is to lower your standards. So what if X or Y or Z happens, or doesn’t? Life’s like that; and I’ll survive. Your acquaintances who “let things roll off their shoulders” may be in that camp.

But since you’re probably not going to lower your standards, the best relief (at least symptomatically) will come from reviewing and reflecting on all your commitments and values, and the challenges you face. You need to look at your situation from a larger and higher perspective. And you’re not going to do that in your head. As you may have heard me say, your mind is a lousy office.

Reflect on these questions, and write your answers somewhere: Why are you on the planet? What’s your purpose? What really matters to you, in terms of your values? What’s your vision of a successful future? What must you do to realize that vision? What do you need to maintain? What projects do you need to define and complete? What are your next actions?

When I reflect on these questions myself, it helps me accept the things other people do that I don’t like. It’s easier for me to empathize, realizing everyone is trying to do their best with what they know and where they are. I’ve realized that about myself.

This response to your question is probably more daunting than you had hoped, and for that I apologize. If I had a simpler remedy, I would gladly give it. I don’t. Welcome to this classroom called life.

All the best,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Getting Things Done

8 thoughts on “Don’t Let it Bring You Down”

  1. George Wilhelmsen

    I can say this applies to me (and a lot of my acquaintances) a lot.

    Thank you for the helpful insights on how to get by this and let it go. I’ll try them out.

  2. Gayl Bowser

    well, YES. AND It’s hard to apply “There are no problems, only projects to the forest fires around me, the pandemic and climate change. These days I live with a case of low-level anxiety most of the time. Got LOTS of projects going but it’s hard not to see those big things as problems. Can you say anything more about this?

  3. Jason

    On Stress, Action-Orientation…and “Shoulding” the Bed

    This is excellent advice. It is undeniably true that what we feel is not actually a product of the world, but of our stories about the world that we tell ourselves. Control that story (taking the steps David discusses is but one example to modify your self-talk), and feel at least somewhat better.

    But I find the answer unsatisfying – not because it doesn’t provide a “simpler remedy”, but because it deserves more depth on the factors affecting the self-talk that’s driving how one feels. I could do exactly as suggested and not feel any better if my performance expectations are not also calibrated. To feel meaningfully better, “doing something” is indeed necessary, but it is rarely sufficient.

    Engaging in action, even very strategically, doesn’t necessarily deal with my expectations around responsibility and performance, which may (or, critically, may not) be quite distorted. To take the extreme example cited, the reason gravity isn’t a stressor to me isn’t because I’m engaged in gravitational mitigation activities; it’s because I don’t believe mitigating it is something I “should” be able to do.

    Similarly, I would find it exceptionally difficult to maintain a mental story that “everyone is trying to do their best with what they know and where they are” when I know that to be objectively false. Instead, I can accept that everyone is in a different place, with different tools and experiences, and they may or may not have the capacity (or interest!) to engage as I would prefer—and critically, that’s not necessarily about me. My part is the expectation I place on myself and others, that drives my story and therefore drives my feelings.

    I find Hanlon’s Razor (never attribute malice to that which can be adequately explained by more benign factors such as ignorance) can be helpful self-talk, without attributing Pollyanna universal best-intentions to everyone else. The key, I think, is indeed to engage constructively in change where you can and where it aligns with your values, but not without an equally critical self-engagement with your feelings around what “should” be possible by you and others. Work on those distortions, and you at least have a chance at more things “rolling off your shoulders.”

    Of course, I am personally successful implementing these insights FAR less than I’d like, which is why it is helpful to type out this response as a reminder. Maybe it’s helped others too; if not, I apologize for the lengthy response and do very much appreciate David’s original post!

    1. Ryan Trimble

      I, for one, enjoyed this, Jason. Thanks for writing it. Interesting and entertaining (in the good sense of the word).

    2. Steven Thomas

      Jason really appreciate your reply it added to David’s post and helps me especially with the people closest in my life on whom I have the highest expectations. Probably is ignorance and immaturity on malice and evil in their hearts. That really helps me let go. I need to learn more about the “Hanlon Razor” concept you mentioned. Thanks for your addition to this great learning opportunity.

  4. Elizabeth D'Addio

    Remember that it’s ok to acknowledge that something is bothering you. And think through the story you’re telling yourself about the person’s behavior, actions, or words.

  5. David N/A Selden

    I think the problem being sure there is “something I can/cannot do about it.” If you have an open mind there is a lot you can do about almost everything. I guess the challenge for me might be trying to strike a balance in doing something or letting something go.

  6. Sandeep Maher

    I think the essence of the resolution is when David Allen says “You need to look at your situation from a larger and higher perspective.”. The devil is in the mind and I would sometimes use my heart to rise above situations and people idiosyncrasies. It’s never easy but it is essential to look beyond, rise up or forgive and forget. Indeed one’s soul will need cleansing as well which one can provided one introspects. That is part of our journey in life.

    A worthy reference is to listen to the 3-part ‘Art of Letting Go’ by Om Swami (an Indian monk), the first part link –

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