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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

3 Strategies for Keeping Your Cool at Work

You get a rude email from a co-worker.

You read it once and start to feel annoyed, then you read it again, just to make sure. Yes: It’s obnoxious. So, you hit “reply” and start dashing out a response to set the record straight, feeling your blood rise with every keyboard stroke.

Sound familiar? Whether it’s getting angry with an annoying colleague, getting frazzled by a problem in a project, or just getting frustrated by little speed bumps in the day, there will be times when something minor grates on you in the office. And, like me, your first instinct may be to get angry, to snap, or to react.

But there’s a better way to handle these moments. First—of course—don’t send emails when you’re upset. But more importantly, you have to relentlessly remind yourself to keep a level-headed perspective on the job.

I know—easier said than done. But next time something gets to you, try one of these three simple techniques for staying cool, calm, and collected.

1. Ask Yourself How Important it Is

When I find my blood pressure rising and I start to lose my perspective, I ask myself this simple question: Will I care about this in five years? As I stare at whatever email I’ve just received or whatever presentation I’m working on, the answer is almost always a definitive no. Usually, I will have moved on from it in a month.

This rhetorical question is not an excuse to become complacent on the job, but it provides me with the outlook I need to step away from my desk when I’m feeling agitated, get some fresh air, or boost my blood sugar with a snack. Then, I can return to what I’m doing and—with the keen awareness that I’m not facing wartime disaster—do my best to keep calm and carry on.

2. Don’t Take Anything Personally

I know what you’re thinking: everything is personal. And it’s always the sleaziest business executives—at least in the movies—who say things like: “It’s just business; don’t take it personally.”

But there is something you can learn from trying to gain this perspective when you're feeling overwhelmed, attacked, or frustrated. The case for this mentality is made best in The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, who explains how he implements this way of thinking:

Whatever happens around you, don’t take it personally. Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.

Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds.

There are times when you may feel like a less-than-friendly email or snappy comment from your boss has something to do with your performance. And there are certainly times when this may be the case. But more often than not, the people you work with have their own daily stressors that influence how they’re interacting with the world—things that, as Ruiz points out, have nothing to do with you.

3. Feed the Right Wolf

We are all vulnerable to something called negativity bias, which means that the bad events of the day are more memorable than the good ones. But just because it’s our natural tendency to dwell on the negative doesn’t mean we can’t push back against it.

In her book Taking the Leap, Pema Chödrön illustrates the negative and positives sides of ourselves as two hungry wolves fighting in our hearts. She asks readers to think of the wolf who wins the fight as the wolf who we choose to feed.

Most of us have gotten so good at empowering our negativity and insisting on our rightness that the angry wolf gets shinier and shinier, and the other wolf is just there with its pleading eyes. But we’re not stuck with this way of being. When we’re feeling resentment or any strong emotion, we can recognize that we are getting worked up, and realize that right now we can consciously make the choice to be aggressive or to cool off. It comes down to choosing which wolf we want to feed.

You can choose to focus on the minor frustrations of your day—or, you can choose to focus on finding meaning in your work. This can feel impossible when you’re consumed by something on the job, but try to pause and reflect on what’s really important to you. In that moment, you may be able to channel your energy in another direction—to switch gears and work on a project you really care about or to simply take a moment to remind yourself what you appreciate about your job.

Work will never be free from stressors or annoyances, but you’re always in a position to manage how well you handle them. If do your best to maintain perspective when things get heightened, you’ll find yourself not getting bogged down by the details of the day, and instead, rising above them.

Photo of frustrated man courtesy of Shutterstock.