May 6, 2013
Hi there, readers. I'd like to talk about your fantasies.
Not THOSE fantasies, you pervs. This is a family workplace column.
I'm talking about your "quitting fantasies" — the daydreams we have about the most satisfying way to exit a job.
Say you're having a bad day — month? year? decade? — and your mind drifts. You see yourself storming the boss's office, yelling in his face. Or maybe you leap atop your desk, stomp your keyboard to bits and shout, "I'M OUTTA HERE, LOSERS!!"
(My quitting fantasy involves loud rap music, a marching band and departing, shirtless, atop a Minotaur. It would likely win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.)
The question is, are these fantasies healthy outlets for workplace frustrations or reckless visions that drag us deeper into career unhappiness?
I contacted Shawn Achor, a happiness researcher and author of "The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work."
He said much depends on whether a person is serious about quitting: "If you plan to leave your job, then visualizing that and figuring out how you're going to do it is actually very helpful. It's teaching your brain that what you think about really matters. You're taking positive changes to raise your happiness level in life."
But if you're not in a position to quit, those daydreams can become whirlpools of negativity.
"The brain can't tell the difference between visualization and actual actions," Achor said. "When people start fantasizing about leaving a situation, their happiness levels go down, and their success rates go down as well."
Stephen Heidel, a psychiatrist and founder of Heidel and Associates, a California-based management consulting practice, said the best thing about "behavior daydreaming" is that it makes you aware of an issue that's upsetting you.
"It's a signal that you need to pay attention to," he said.
But if you continue the quitting fantasies without digging deeper into what's making you angry or unhappy, you might set yourself up for an outburst.
"When you express excessive emotions of a negative nature at work, your outburst then becomes the issue and your legitimate concerns are lost and overshadowed," Heidel said. "You lose the opportunity to deal with them constructively. Bad things happen. You could get in an argument with your boss and get fired. You could get so angry that you take it out on your spouse at home. Sometimes people have accidents at work because they're subconsciously angry or are distracted by anger."
Of course everyone is going to hit the occasional rough spot at work, so don't panic if you find yourself mentally smashing the boss's ficus against the wall from time to time. The real problem is if your dramatic exit dreams become a constant mental presence.
If that's the case, Heidel suggests some self-examination. Say your main gripe is with a supervisor. Have you had similar experiences in the past? You might pick up on a trend, and then you can establish whether you're part of the problem.
"Another thing is to talk to people at work, talk to people you trust," Heidel said. "See if they react the same way that you do to the situation, and if they do, why? Talk to your spouse, or someone else you're close to, and see how they would react. And don't rule out talking to a therapist. Therapists aren't cheap, but it's cheaper to go to a therapist than to lose your job."
The bottom line is you need to understand the situation, not just stew in your own juices. And then you need to make your work life better.
Achor shared a fascinating detail. He said the brain is unable to simultaneously focus on things that you can't control and things that you can. It's one or the other.
"So instead of visualizing quitting, write down two things you can actually control that day," he said. "Then your brain is focusing its limited resources on things that can actually move you forward. It's like you're distracting your brain from the out-of-control things."
Achor also said: "When we're thinking about quitting we're often in deficit thinking, thinking about the things we don't have. Each day when you start work, write down three things you're grateful for. Your brain starts not looking at deficits but at the things that you're happy about."
Normally, suggestions such as "visualize the positives" strike me as a bit squishy, but Achor's ideas are based on research he conducted at Harvard University into finding ways to keep frustrated students from thinking about leaving.
If you're devoting brain power to finding the most clever way to stick it to the man — or looking for a good place to buy a Minotaur — you might as well give some of these steps a try. Because as fun as it is to fantasize about leaving work, it's far better to find a way to make staying there possible.
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