Executive Careers Blog

How Long Are Your Problems?


In Boston, where I live, no one laments the end of winter. You never hear, "Winter, it just flew by! Where'd it go?"

But after Labor Day, you hear that all the time about summer. Mostly from me. I just can't get over it.

"Nothing lasts," my wife says. "Nothing."

"What about jello mold?" I ask.

"Four days," she says. "And that's only because no one eats it."

The fact that everything's temporary—your job, your company, jello mold—is painful when you're enjoying something good, but reassuring when you're not.

We're talking duration.

Duration is also a financial term, in case you ever, temporarily, have any money. It refers to the length of your bonds, and their sensitivity to interest rate risk.

Bonds, like problems, can be short, intermediate, or long. And like problems, the longer your bonds, the more you have to worry.

But as psychologist Martin Seligman points out, we often think our problems are permanent when they're not, and this thinking gets us into trouble.

If, for example, you lose your job, and you think, "I'll NEVER work again," you'll have less drive—and less chance of finding work—than someone who thinks, "temporary setback."

Here are some of my recent problems and their duration—plus my irrational thoughts.

1) Shipping my son's car to New Orleans: The car (which had my son's laptop and clothing) was supposed to arrive by Monday when my son started work.

The fact that everything's temporary—your job, your company, jello mold—is painful when you're enjoying something good, but reassuring when you're not.
Consultant, author, founder of Express Potential
Paul Hellman

It didn't. Then the shipper promised Friday. Then Sunday. And so on.

Thought: The car will NEVER arrive.

What happened: car arrived. Duration of problem: Eight days.

2) Painting our house: The painters taped plastic sheets around all the windows to protect them from the next day's spraying.

But then it rained, and the painters didn't return. Then it was sunny, and the painters didn't return. Apparently, they'd decided, "Why paint the house—we'll just shrink-wrap it."

Thought: Soon, we won't be able to breathe.

What happened: painters returned. Duration: One week.

3) Hurricane Earl: My wife and I were at an inn on Martha's Vineyard. Earl, meanwhile, was in N. Carolina, visiting the Outer Banks. Everyone on the Vineyard was talking about the approaching disaster.

"Sometimes," the innkeeper said, "the ferry shuts down for days. No one leaves the island."

Thought: We're trapped!

What happened: Earl came and went. So did we. Duration: 24 hours.

Tip: Timestamp your problems. How long are they, really? If you're fortunate, most have a short duration.

And if you keep reminding yourself of that, you'll (hopefully) have a long duration.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (  Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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