Updated: Sep 22
Most of my nearly two-decade corporate career was spent in financial services. I never thought I'd work in banking. (You'd be surprised by how many long-time bankers admit the same thing.) In fact, when I did an MBA right after my undergrad, it was meant, at the time, to be a steppingstone to a Ph.D. However, when I didn't feel passionately enough about any business topic to undertake a four-year doctorate on it, I decided to work instead, with the thought that inspiration for a Ph.D. thesis might come through more exposure to real-world issues.
So, off I went to my first real job, as a commercial banking risk analyst.
In all jobs, there are things that a person likes and things they don't like. For me at that time, analyzing risk was my least favourite part of the job, which, well, was a bit of a problem since that was the JOB. Couple that with the fact that I was still longing to do a Ph.D. but had no idea in what. And the fact that I was working in an office where I was not only 500 km from my friends and family but also the youngest person by about 20 years. The result: some dark hours at work. I'd get very deeply caught up in my thoughts. I'd call it a downward spiral but "spiral" sounds like too much fun to be an accurate description. It was more like a violent airplane toilet of thoughts. On repeat.
(I want to pause here to reassure my banking friends who are reading this that this isn't an attack on the financial services industry. I promise I'm going somewhere good. You know I ended up enjoying my banking career very much!)
"This is boring. I don't know banking. I feel like a fraud. I need to go back to school. But I don't want to give up my salary. Plus, what will my thesis be? I need to do research to figure it out. I don't have time to do research because I work too much doing this boring job." Round and round, I'd go.
Does this sound familiar to any of you? Ugh. It's exhausting.
And so it went, day in and day out. I'd start out optimistic every day but get worn down pretty quickly. It wasn't the job that wore me down, though; it was my thoughts.
It was so quiet in that office and the work lent itself (pun intended) to long periods of silence during which I would think, think, think and inevitably end up in the thought toilet.
When a person is analyzing a company's financial statements, they have to log the data into a system that then generates a risk rating. Inputting that financial information is easy and a bit tedious but requires a lot of focus. In the midst of my thought toilet vortex, I'd begrudgingly start inputting data and then, after concentrating on the task for a while, I'd kind of "come to" and think "Huh. That's weird. I feel… good?? Content? At peace, even? What the ---- is going on? That can't be correct because I don't like this job!"
What was happening in those moments leading up to my "coming to" was that I was "in flow" with the task of financial data entry.
It's the same as being "in the zone" or "in the groove".
So, in my financial analysis example, I was fully concentrating on that task and, as a result, I wasn't worrying about how I "should" be a professor instead or even how much I allegedly disliked the task I was doing.
I was just doing it. I was fully focused on the task at hand.
I was present.
Being present can sometimes just happen but, mostly, it's a choice we have to make.
I know that it can sometimes feel like we're at the mercy of our thoughts, like "I can't help thinking about that" or "Will I ever stop worrying about this?", but it IS possible to control them.
My thoughts about the past and future made me miserable but, when I chose to put those thoughts on pause and focus on what I was doing, I stopped being miserable. I even felt happy. (Yes, I am openly admitting here that putting numbers into their rightful little boxes made me happy. I also enjoy organizing closets. And doing my taxes. So there. I said it. The nerd force is strong in me.) If you're thinking, "I want more flow in my life! I want a break from my tyrant thoughts!" then try this: The next time you are facing a task that you don't want to do, acknowledge your thoughts and feelings but then put them aside by focusing on doing that task. Be practical. Consider what you must do to prepare for or lead into that specific task. Notice what you detect with each of your senses: What does doing the task feel like? Notice the feeling of the chair you are sitting in, for instance. Identify what you can see, paying attention to details like colours and textures. Connect with what you hear, like the sound of your head bashing against your keyboard. Just kidding. Ignore that sound. Connect instead with the sound your keyboard makes as you type! Notice smells and tastes, if applicable. (You might want to steer clear of this if the task you dislike is cleaning a toilet or taking out the trash. Not all senses need to be part of the experience for everything.) As you do the above, your thoughts may creep in. It's okay. That's normal. Just systematically return your focus to whatever it is you are doing. This sets the stage for you to get into flow, to be totally absorbed by what you are doing in the moment. As a result, you may feel a deep sense of inner calm that comes from being in that state.
We all can get caught up in our thoughts. It's a normal part of a human's day. But, sometimes those thoughts get us down. However, when assessing the types of thoughts you have in a day, you have to be honest with yourself. Sometimes we need more than the ability to be mindful. Sometimes we need therapy, medication, or some other formal intervention… and that's totally okay. What I'm sharing here can always help but sometimes we need more. What I've said above should not replace other treatment plans or advice; they can work in tandem. What's important is that you become aware of your thoughts and then do whatever it is you need to do.
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p.s. The information, insight, and advice I share through my work is meant to exist alongside whatever else you may be doing to bolster your mental health, manage stress, or improve your well-being. Nothing I share is meant to replace directives or treatment plans provided by your doctor, therapist, or other healthcare professional.